Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

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.

Compelling Chapters Knit Small Stories into Powerful Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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

After I enjoy reading a memoir, I think carefully about the impression it made on me. That for me is the payoff. What do I actually remember about this journey through a writer’s life? Usually, the chapters fade into the background. They provided forward momentum without calling attention to themselves. However, in some memoirs, they jump out and warrant a closer look. I’ve already raved about the power of Slash Coleman’s intriguing and creative approach to character arc in Bohemian Love Diaries. Now, I want to rave about the remarkable power he packs into his chapters. Each smaller unit pops with energy, and yet they all hang together to create a larger whole.

Slash Coleman’s journey comes alive with vivid images like his childhood pressure to find his half-Jewish identity, his desperate need to discover his artistic expression, and his series of passionate attempts to find a mate. I believe these pressures stand out so vividly in my memory, not because he had better adventures than other people (although he did have some doozies. His experiences sound so compelling because he turns experience into powerful stories.

Until now, I have mainly focused on the power of the overall arc of each memoir. Bohemian Love Diaries reminds me to pay more attention to the power contained within chapters. These smaller units of suspense are crucial for holding a reader’s attention.

When I first started writing my memoir, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever develop a compelling story. At first, my memories felt like a disorganized pile of bits and pieces. Gradually, my sequence of anecdotes took shape. Some chunks were obvious, like when I graduated high school in Philadelphia and went to college in Wisconsin, or when I moved to Berkeley, California to try and become a hippie. As my sequences of scenes turned into autobiographical segments,  I noticed subtler demarcations. A relationship. An artistic dream. A shift in career. A search for meaning. How could I turn these life pressures into strong arcs that shape chapters?

Slash Coleman offers an important clue on his website, where he lists himself as a professional storyteller. He stands in front of people and tells stories. For example check out his excellent TedX talk about the power of storytelling. As a story performer, he has the benefit of trial and error. If he doesn’t get the expected laugh, murmur or softening eyes, he has to tyr something else.

I know about this process from the excellent memoirs Born Standing Up Steve Martin and Enter Talking by Joan Rivers. These comedians both started their careers knowing they wanted to entertain audiences. To learn their craft, they had to stand up and try. Their listeners’ feedback provided constant course corrections that led these two performers to incredible success.

Memoir writers too can improve by listening to their audiences. Consider the fabulous success of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s first memoir. The blockbusting bestseller helped launch the Memoir Revolution. In McCourt’s later memoirs Tis and Teacher Man he explains that he spent a lifetime as a high school teacher, telling his students about his childhood experience. Years of audience feedback taught him the art of telling his life.

Slash Coleman’s performances provided him with some of the same storytelling firepower. Reading his book felt like sitting in the audience watching him perform it. In segment after segment, he ends with a punch. And then, as I imagine listening to the ending of the book, I feel like I’m in a hushed audience, waiting and watching as he wraps up the whole thing.

You don’t need to stand in front of a live audience to learn if you’re on the right track.  For example, memoir writer John Grogan tells of a related technique that helped him create his bestseller Marley and Me. Grogan was a newspaper columnist, paid to look for a story every week. Not only did he develop the knack of finding the story in everyday life. He also learned what stories his readers enjoyed by checking the newspaper’s letters and phone calls to the editor.

During the early stages of converting memories into stories, we’re too close to our material. Telling stories to families rarely helps. Families know the characters and hear the same stories repeated in the same way for years. Stories told at the dinner table sound out of place in public. We need to gain some distance, and the best way to do that is to learn how we sound to strangers.

A good way to gain this perspective is to seek feedback from a critique group. Online groups are excellent for this. Their anonymity helps participants give honest responses. Face to face critique groups add intimacy, letting you look critiquers in the eye and see how they felt about the piece.  Sharing your work in a critique group teaches you what kind of impression your story makes on readers. Was there enough conflict? Were there surprises? Did the tale pull the reader into the incident or chapter?

Another way to reach readers is to develop a blog. Even if at first you have no readers, writing the blog will let you see yourself as a performer. When the comedian Steve Martin was starting his career, he went on stage and looked out to an empty restaurant. The manager told him to perform anyway, explaining that when people passed by and saw him performing, it would draw them in. Bloggers do this all the time. Without reassurance that anyone will read our work, we persist, using our imaginary audience to help us focus our writing.

So to write your memoir, look at your growing list of anecdotes organized along a time line. Muse about which segment might create the heart of that eternal story-sequence: challenge, obstacles, resolution. When you find candidate, tack on a beginning that introduces the character’s dramatic tension, and a conclusion that resolves it. Then look for an audience. See how it feels to tell it. See what sorts of responses you receive.

The feedback strengthen your storytelling sensibility enabling you to tighten each chapter and gain a compelling sense of the overall structure. Eventually, you will have a book that makes sense to readers, converting a lifetime into a story worth reading.


Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman

Click here for an article about John Grogan’s Marley and Me

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.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

In any moment of your life, you don’t know what is going to happen next. So in an authentic story about that life, your character shouldn’t know the future, either. However, at times, it does feel important to hint at something in the future. For example, in my memoir, when my brother was first diagnosed with cancer, I want to say, “And that was the last time I would see him in good health.”

Foreshadowing seems like a legitimate element for fiction. In that fluid reality, the author inserts an ominous thunderstorm to hint at the future. But I have mixed feelings about fortune telling in a memoir. Even though the narrator knows what happens next, the character does not. To maintain the reader’s belief in the story’s timeframe, information must be doled out in a carefully controlled manner. In all but a few memoirs, that means that the narrator only reveals as much as the main character knew at the time.

The practice of foreshadowing in a published memoir is rare enough that it jumps out at me when I see it. For example, in Andre Dubus III’s blue-collar fight memoir Townie, when he describes the guys who hang out on the streets, he notes how much jail time they are destined to serve, and for what crime they will be convicted. This leap in time doesn’t spoil Dubus’ excellent memoir, but it does highlight the fact that for the vast majority of memoirs, the character does not look into a crystal ball.

Even though published memoirs avoid hopping back and forth, free-written memoir drafts often leap across time. There is an obvious reason for this tendency. Memory itself instantly mashes past and present and so, in free-writing sessions when you are pouring words in the page in whatever form your mind presents them, this mashup flows naturally. One of the first and best editing techniques a memoir writer should learn is to eradicate the innocent looking phrase “I remember.”

When you precede a scene with a phrase like “I remember”, you inadvertently ask the reader to make two leaps of faith in quick succession, first jumping into the narrator’s mind and then jumping back through memory to the original events. By deleting the phrase “I remember” the reader no longer needs to enter the narrator’s timeframe, and can go directly into the story.

Full Flashes forward — Time Travel

Thanks to the creativity of storytelling, some fascinating story devices break the rule of chronological simplicity. One of the most unusual approaches to moving through time takes place in Carlos Eire’s two memoirs, Waiting for Snow in Havana and Learning to Die in Miami. He uses an exotic form of time travel, with entire scenes from the future. For example, when Eire was  little boy in Havana, his cousin who is a nice guy as a young man, is part of the counter-revolution in Cuba. Eire jumps forward into fully formed scenes later in life describing this sweet young man’s torture in a Cuban prison and his subsequent mental deterioration.

Why does this peculiar technique work so well for Carlos Eire? When you step back and look at his astonishing journey from a rich Cuban boy to a poor orphan immigrant, and then through his travails toward adult success, it makes sense that his style and structure are exceptional. Add to his own complex journey the strange fact that his father believes in reincarnation and routinely refers back to his past life. Eire grew up listening to his father reminisce about being Louis the XVI, beheaded during the French Revolution. Eire’s whole life prepared him to think about lives in interweaving timelines.

Such a technique, elegantly tailored to the circumstances of one author’s life and thought process, might sound strange and confusing in another story by a different author. Each memoir writer must make these choices based on their own voice, and circumstances.

Foreshadowing on the Outside of the Book

One place that foreshadowing occurs with complete unabashed enthusiasm is in the book’s blurb and descriptions. In fact, building up the reader’s anticipation is one of the jobs of any writer or publisher who hopes to entice readers. Books about growing up in difficult circumstances always imply that the character indeed grows up. And all memoir authors eventually gained the competence and self-confidence to tell their own stories.

The First Chapter Pullout or Prolog for a Shocking Beginning

Some authors create a sense of drama in the first chapter by pulling forward a particularly shocking moment, that is buried deep within the narrative. By moving it to the front of the book, the scene generates tension and anticipation from the first page.

For example, the first scene of Wild by Cheryl Strayed shows her alone on a mountain in deep wilderness. With no civilization in sight, she pulls off her boot and accidentally knocks it over the edge of a cliff. She stands there with one boot wondering how she is going to proceed. Then the story returns to the very beginning. The technique forces us to read through the book to find out how she survived.

Matthew Polly’s memoir American Shaolin starts with a nerve-wracking fight against an advanced martial artist. Then the story springs back to the beginning, with Polly as a mild-mannered boy, trying to find his identity in the Midwest, before heading off to martial arts training in China.

In Fugitive Days, a memoir about the anti-war movement by Bill Ayers, the first sentence of the first chapter is pulled from the worst moment of his life, when he finds out a girl he deeply admires has been killed in a bomb blast.

When reading memoirs that start with a scene pulled forward from the midsection, it feels literally like déjà vu (already seen) when the story actually reaches the moment that was previously described. My first impulse is to feel slightly annoyed when I read about the same moment twice. And then I quickly move on, willing to accept a tiny bit of annoyance in exchange for a good story. I even recommend it as a valid strategy to others.

A modified version of this method is used by Janice Erlbaum. The first chapter of her memoir, Girl Bomb, starts when she walks into a homeless shelter. Her second chapter returns to an earlier time to give the backstory that explains the first one.

Dani Shapiro’s first chapter in Slow Motion shows her in the hospital after her parents’ deadly auto accident. The jolt of the accident starts the book. Then she backs up and shows how she got into the circumstances that the accident saved her from.

Writing Prompt
List a few possible high intensity scenes that might work as first chapter pullouts or prologues. Try each of these in juxtaposition with your first chapter, and either ask from input from your critique group or simply try to imagine how you as a reader would respond to this technique.

This is the fifth essay in a series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.

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.

More Fantasy Techniques To Help Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Memoir writers face the daunting task of turning life experience into a story. To do so, we must select from a variety of storytelling techniques, and find the ones most suitable for our own situations. In this part of my multi-part essay about fantasy techniques in memoirs, I review two more, inspired by a close reading of Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

Weapons and weapon masters in Memoirs

Each James Bond adventure begins with a visit to Q, who provides special purpose tools of war, communication, and deception. This mythical role of the weapons master turns up in a variety of stories. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was loaded with experts in the intricate arts of swords, axes, and arrows. And the role of the weapon master is alive and well in Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open.”

The first weapon in “Open” is the tennis machine, code named The Dragon. This device acquires an almost mythical power over the boy, who had to return every ball that belched forth from the depths of the beast. His father custom tailors the machine, making his father the first weapon master in the book.

The weapon at the heart of the story are his tennis racquets. Agassi is obsessed with his racquet, its grip, and above all its strings. Agassi’s weapon maker is the guy who strings them. Before a match, he won’t let anyone touch his weapon. The psychological intensity of his obsessions with the proper care of his tools build to an almost magical crescendo, blurring the line between real life and fantasy.

Warriors also rely on their mode of transportation. A car or horse often contributes to the protagonist’s power. Agassi recounts several scenes in which driving in a fast car is an important part of his life.

Other memoirs offer variations on importance of tools and weapons. In “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly, the main weapon was the fighter’s own body. Many of the martial artists turned parts of their body into “iron.” Other memoirs focus on the machinery of transportation. For example, Mark Richardson in “Zen and Now” talks at length about keeping his motorcycle in working order. Doreen Orion in “Queen of the Road” focused on details of her luxury motor home, an effective device that proves that with enough creativity you can create a story out of just about anything.

Writing Prompt
Most of us don’t have advanced involvement with weapons, but if you let your imagination roam, you might see tools with which you defend or express yourself. Musical instruments could fill this slot nicely. How did you care for your violin or guitar? If cooking was important, you may have cared for your pots and pans. Gardeners, sculptors, painters all have special equipment that must be cared for, often with ritualistic attention. If you had a special relationship with your mode of transportation, write a scene to show the power and intensity. Horses are especially rich sources of drama. What rituals went into maintaining your motorcycle or  bicycle?

Magic Potions in Memoirs

The protagonists of fairy tales and fantasy fiction often use potions to gain special strengths, cures, or visions. There are truth serums, knockout drops, and antidotes to poison.

In the middle ages, alchemists searched for the elixir of life, that would grant immortality. And of course, deep in Christianity is the communion, drinking wine in order to become  one with the divine presence. In everyday life, we take cough syrup, alka-seltzer and an endless variety of intoxicants, to help us find fun, forgetfulness, and liberation.

Potions played a key role in Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” His sports trainer had a knack for concocting special drinks, some to build the tennis champ up before he played, some to sustain him during a long match, and other’s to help him recover. Agassi spoke with awe about these potions, to which he ascribed great power over his state of health, strength and stamina.

Probably the most common use of potions is to intoxicate. These mental releases sometimes open windows, and just as often close doors. When Agassi was in a dark funk, he took crystal meth, a move that gave him temporary pleasure and jeopardized his entire career.

Writing Prompt

What meds, coffee, vitamins, mind altering drugs and alcohol or other “magic” potions played a role in your journey?


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” For the start of the series, see
When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

For the Amazon page for Open, click here.

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.

Cast of Characters in His Chosen Clan

by Jerry Waxler

I used to think that heroes tended to be lonely but when I read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” I realized they are not so lonely after all. It’s true they must leave home to go off on their adventures, which at first makes them seem isolated. But they soon collect allies. King Arthur was surrounded by his Knights of the Roundtable. The Hobbits traveled with a band of companions called the Fellowship, and in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gathered the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. Similarly, memoir protagonists often attract a group of friends and followers.

Consider world famous tennis player, Andre Agassi, hero of the memoir “Open.” Before he could afford to hire companions, his brother accompanied him on tours. As his career grew, so did his band of allies. He hooked up with professional sports trainers and strategists, a personal racquet stringer, and a spiritual mentor. This cast of supporting characters culminated in a perfect match with his soul mate, Steffi Graf, another world-famous tennis player.

Agassi did more than mention these people. He freely shared his debt to them, almost devotionally letting us see that even though he was the one out in the spotlight, his crew deserved a substantial portion of the credit for his success. One of his most damning criticisms of his first wife, Brooke Shields, was that she didn’t grasp the importance of the clan in his life.

Most memoir authors don’t have an entourage. For example, in “Zen and Now,” author Mark Richardson rode his motorcycle alone, occasionally meeting people on the road. One reason I found this book so haunting was because the author’s soul mates lived in a different time. In the present, he could only gather their ghosts. At the other extreme, in “The Path, One Man’s Quest on the Only Path there is,”  Donald Walters moved into an ashram. Sarah McDonald is somewhere in the middle. Her year in India is assisted by a couple of friends and the staff at her apartment, who help her understand the local culture.

A chosen family plays a central role in my own story. When I left home, I turned into a classic loner, essentially a recluse. Later, the pendulum swung and I moved in to a commune where I could enjoy both extremes. I could be as withdrawn as I wanted to be by closing the door to my room, and when I wanted company, I simply walked out into the kitchen to be with my band of allies.

Writing Prompt

The power of the chosen clan may add depth and interest to your own memoir. In different stages in your life, what micro-community gave you social context? Write a few scenes that show how you relied on them for support and companionship.


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” For the start of the series, see
When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

For the Amazon page for Open, click here.

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.

Shapeshifting, Costumes, and Imposters in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

In myths, characters can sometimes change shape, for example transforming from man to wolf. Cinderella’s fabulous night out transformed her from a maid to a princess. The notion of moving from one role to another is not limited to fairy tales. Through costumes, cosmetics, hair style, and role-playing, we often alter the way we present ourselves to one another. In previous posts, I showed how ancient storytelling techniques helped Andre Agassi share his life in the memoir, “Open.” In this article, I show how changing shape or “shapeshifting” can help you add impact and authenticity to your memoir.

For the first 18 years of our lives, while we are trying to figure out who we are, our body is changing shape. So during our coming of age, we are all shapeshifters. During this period in Andre Agassi’s life, he had the additional complication of becoming famous. The public was trying to form an image of him, just as he was trying to form an image of himself. As a young man searching for his own teenage identity, he occasionally rebelled against rules, wearing different, non-regulation clothes. The public came to see him as a rebel.

His mane of gorgeous hair became his trademark. When it began to fall out in gobs he desperately tried to hang on to his old identity with wigs, terrified of being seen as a balding man. Finally he accepted the inevitable. He shaved his head, and radically changed his public image.

Writing Prompt

What alterations in your appearance could add nuance to passages in your memoir? Perhaps as you describe your shape, you will learn why people related to you the way they did.

Actors change shape all the time

Ironically, the person who encouraged Agassi to let go of this charade and shave his head was his first wife, Brooke Shields. This is especially interesting because during the course of their relationship, Shields was building her career as an actress and Agassi became increasingly unnerved by Shields’ ability to assume any role she was assigned to play. If she could play any character on demand, how did he know when she was sincere and when she was just acting?

These observations about his relationship with Shields show the confusing psychological aspects of being an actress as well as getting to know one. Through his eyes, I saw the connection between actors and the mythology of shapeshifting. Actors are paid to shift their shape.

Reluctant Shapeshifting is Common, Too

Whether we choose our new role, or have it thrust on us, it can take time to adjust. The transition period can be awkward or downright uncomfortable. When I first earned my Master’s Degree, I felt confident with clients, but in public, I didn’t feel like a therapist. Known as “imposter anxiety” this discomfort in a role is more common than you might think. For example, in “Down Came the Rain,” Brooke Shields looked at her newborn baby and was horrified to realize she wasn’t able to instantly shift into the new frame of reference of being a mom.

Writing Prompt

Consider situations in your own life when you felt like you were in a role that was “not really you.” This lag time during which you struggle to accept your role can help your readers relate to your growing-pains. Write a scene that shows your struggle. If later, you resolved the feeling and settled into the role, write a scene that shows your adaptation.


This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” For the start of the series, see
When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

For the Amazon page for Open, click here.

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.

Turn economic hardships into stories of strength

by Jerry Waxler

Jutting out of the landscape of our lives are those times when we struggled to provide for ourselves and our family. Whether we were transitioning to a new career or scrambling to recover from a layoff or other setback, we stumbled through uneven and unfamiliar territory. Years later, we take pride in our effective decisions and the cunning with which we applied old skills and learned new ones. We overcame discouragement and other obstacles and survived. Now as we tell the story of those triumphs, we develop our role as the hero at the center of our own life.

But what about today’s challenges? In the last few years, millions of us lost savings and jobs, forcing us into economic changes we didn’t anticipate. In some distant future, when we write the memoir of these times, we will again discover the resilience, strengths, and the excitement of the story. But for now, it’s hard to feel like a hero, constrained as we are by the narrower scope of just getting through the day.

One way to improve your perspective is to develop as quickly as possible the story of these hard times. Stories let you grasp the whole situation, letting strength dominate worry. Through stories you can find courage, poise, and make better sense of your choices. And stories have one more benefit. They let you share your experiences, providing an opportunity for mutual support. I have been following two organizations who have taken a keen interest in turning stories of economic survival into the shared experience of a community.

One group, called Civic Ventures, was founded by Marc Freedman, author of the book “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman.” Freedman’s organization, Civic Ventures now also publishes the Encore Careers website to provide a forum for people going through the transition to a new career. The site is loaded with stories of people who have reinvented themselves, turning loss and frustration into a catalyst for renewal.

The other organization that is encouraging people to tell their stories is First Person Arts, . Their programs help people share the artistry of life experience through paintings, video, and written works. First Person Arts even conducts “story slams” in Philadelphia, adding live performance to the teller’s repertoire.

Because of the historic changes in the economy in the last year, First Person Arts has launched a national story writing contest, to solicit stories of how individuals are coping and adapting and reacting to hardship. Inspired by the explosion of storytelling in the Great Depression, the First Person Arts contest encourages people to find their stories and share them. For more about the contest, click here.

To organize your story, consider the universal framework that converts life experience into a narrative form that other people will relate to. In the beginning there is a protagonist who wants something – in this case economic survival, with a dash of dignity and satisfaction. On the road towards that goal, you push through or outsmart the obstacles. You gather allies and skills, and overcame discouragement. By the end, you achieve some goal. To help you get the ball rolling, I’ve listed a few questions. Try answering them as if you are giving an interview. (If you’d like, post them here, or on other storytelling sites.)

“What was your goal?”

Look for a mix of motivations that drove you forward. Be specific (“I want my old job back”) or general, (“I want to find satisfaction”). In fact, this may be the most important part of the exercise. By trying to explain what creates the dramatic tension in your story, you will begin to see it more clearly yourself.

“What were the main obstacles that blocked you from achieving that goal?”

The external ones will be relatively obvious, like money, education, or age. But like any good story, there is also an inner dimension. What did you fear? What options were you reluctant to face? Did you impulsively lunge forward, meaning your biggest obstacle was lack of clear thinking? Turn storytelling into a mirror. As you explain your story to others, you’ll understand more about yourself.

“What tools, allies, and choices helped you overcome these obstacles?”

In any good story, the thrill is seeing the protagonist overcome the enemies, and reach the end of the maze. How did you do it? What mentors gave you  advice? What learning did you acquire? Cleverness is a fun story element. What choice felt especially cunning?

“What milestones did you pass?”

Describe the important milestones to let the reader see how things moved from beginning to end.

“When did you know you ‘arrived’?”

The satisfaction of reading the story comes from achieving or releasing the dramatic tension you established at the beginning.

“What would tell others who want to make this journey?”

A good story often has a second payoff. After the external goal is achieved (you got the job), you can offer the reader the additional reward of offering what you learned or how you grew.

It will take additional effort and skill to polish your interview and turn it into something fun to read. But it’s worth it. While you challenge yourself to achieve the goal, you’ll also be gaining some lovely benefits, not the least of which is to increase your ability to tell a story. Learning this knack of telling your story could be the best investment you can make, because once you own the skill, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

Riddle of the Sphinx – Stand Straight for Dignity

by Jerry Waxler

My brother had a curved spine with the fancy name “scoliosis.” So I knew that Linda Wisniewski’s memoir, “Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage” would have something to do with posture. However, after reading it I wondered if posture played a central enough role in the story to warrant a position in the title. It’s true that when she was diagnosed with this problem, it made her feel like she had a defect, like there was something diminished in her character. Was that enough?

I kept thinking about Linda’s posture, and how it might have affected her life, and soon noticed that my first impression of people was influenced by how straight they stood. This observation provided an insight into something I might have known earlier if I had thought about it, but I didn’t. These signals we send and receive are nonverbal, without words. And therefore, we may find ourselves affected by such things, without necessarily thinking them through. It was only by reading the memoir that I began to wonder what such an experience might feel like.

After thinking about it, it was easy to see for myself that the charisma of a person can be affected by their posture, but what about their self-image? Recently I came across a fascinating observation from an analysis of the ancient drama “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. In a lecture series “Understanding Literature and Life” Professor Arnold Weinstein recites the famous riddle of the Sphinx. “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” The answer is “humans.” Professor Weinstein points out that the riddle is not about legs. It’s about posture. As children, we crawl. To join the world of adults, we stand up. As we grow old, we stoop, using the cane to remain as upright as possible. Humans equate dignity with an upright spine, and when standing up is hard, we try harder.

Another suggestion about posture came from Martin Luther King’s autobiography, which was posthumously crafted from his notes and speeches by Clayborne Carson. King exhorted people to maintain their dignity despite the crushing weight of prejudice and Jim Crow laws. He said, “No one can ride on your back if you stand up straight.”

Throughout the memoir “Off Kilter,” Linda Wisniewski does press forward to find her dignity in the midst of the many social and psychological issues facing women in the twentieth century. And so, while she does not quote Martin Luther King or Sophocles, her tale is definitely about the struggle to achieve dignity, providing personal echoes of this universal principle.

Memoir itself is a triumph of the human spirit

By showing how her curved spine affected her, she helped me think more deeply about this aspect of life. She helped me understand my brother’s condition. Even at his full six feet five, he was, in a sense, unable to stand up straight, and found his dignity in other ways, through serving and healing people. She helped me understand the struggles of the women of the twentieth century, who strived to find their dignity despite old roles that encouraged them to be submissive. And she helped me realize the importance of posture as a general symbol for human dignity.

While nothing could straighten out the curvature of her spine, Linda’s effort has elevated her stature in a different way. She shared a story, and that act creates a dignified connection between us that transcends the shape of her spine. By teasing, tweaking, and perfecting the narrative of her life journey, she has become a woman who stands tall despite the forces of age, culture, and gravity.

Story behind the book

The history behind Linda’s title might reveal something of its sweeping implications. Before she wrote the book, she wrote an essay about her scoliosis that attracted the attention of author Maureen Murdock who praised Linda’s story and encouraged her to extend it. Since Maureen Murdock is famous for her interest in symbolism, perhaps her guidance contributed to the deeper meaning conveyed in Linda Wisniewski’s memoir.


For more about Linda Wisniewski, her memoir and for buying options, visit her home page.

I recommend the audio version of a book about Martin Luther King’s life, “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Martin Luther King, Clayborne Carson assembled from King’s letters, notes and speeches.  I listened to the version from which includes original recordings of many of his speeches.

To learn more about Maureen Murdock’s work, visit her home page.

Visit the Teaching Company for lectures about literature, philosophy, and other topics of value to memoir writers. For the lecture series mentioned in this essay see: “Understanding Literature and Life” by Professor Arnold Weinstein.

Identity moves too in Doreen Orion’s travel memoir

By Jerry Waxler

Doreen Orion and her husband are psychiatrists, which means they had to complete medical school before they could start studying mental illness. This intense education elevates physicians to the stratosphere, provoking enough curiosity in the rest of us to inspire television shows like ER, Scrubs, Marcus Welby, MASH, and Gray’s Anatomy. Now you can add one more resource to learn who doctors “really are” by reading Doreen Orion’s memoir, “Queen of the Road.”

You will learn a couple of things about doctors. But like everyone else her identity is a moving target. Whether you are a psychiatrist, a CEO, beauty queen, sales person, or factory worker, your title changes depending on whether you’re home, at your parents’ house, or at work. It changes from decade to decade, and it changes when you retire.

I know a couple who moved to a retirement community in Florida where former factory workers and college professors set aside their old titles and in this egalitarian environment they all become good friends. (Some are better at dropping their former role than others.) Doreen and her husband are not yet fully retired, but their year off provides a glimpse of what happens when they shuck the outer skin of their identity.

When sketching your life story, take advantage of Orion’s example. Pay attention to what your various roles feel like. With your kids you were mom or dad, in your parents’ house you were the kid, and at work the boss or worker. Look across decades, and see how your roles evolved. By staying open to the various ways people see you and you see yourself, you will portray your identity not as a static thing, but a thing in motion.

Writing Prompt
Who are you in your main role? What other roles do you have? Write a few anecdotes, calling attention to your roles.

Character Arc – What you have learned, keeps readers interested
It turns out that one of the fundamental principles of story telling is that during the course of the story, the protagonist is supposed to learn something and change in some way. This story element is called Character Arc, and if done well continues to resonate in the reader’s mind after they close the book. If you want people to remember your memoir long enough to recommend it to friends, I recommend you carefully consider the Character Arc.

“Queen of the Road” starts with concern about midlife crisis, and so, once this dramatic tension has been planted in the reader’s mind, it needs to be resolved by the end. That’s a problem because it’s impossible to “solve” midlife. In fact, by the end of the book, the couple was a year older. The resolution of this dramatic tension comes from Character Arc. If she learns and grows, the reader feels satisfied. So what did Orion learn?

Travel and “Stuff”
One of the haunting images of the pioneers of the old west is the sad scene when the wagon train reaches the mountains. With winter approaching and the horses straining to carry their load, the pioneers make a terrible decision. They push the most valuable thing they own, their piano, off the back of the wagon. Freed of this burden they cross the mountain before winter and save their lives.

Unlike the settlers of the American West, Orion stored her stuff during her pilgrimage, but she was inconvenienced in other ways. For example, after purchasing a pair of shoes she came back to the RV and realized there was no where to put them. So she had to drive all the way back to the store and return them.

Religions have been proposing for millennia that since you can’t take it with you, don’t get too attached to your stuff. It doesn’t seem probable that a bus equipped with dishwasher and satellite television will teach Orion a profound lesson about detachment. But it does.

Orion realized her stuff was not as important as she thought. This inner development might seem small. But despite its modest size, she leaves me feeling rewarded. She was wiser at the end of the book than she was at the beginning – Not a bad pay off for a trip, and not a bad payoff for reading a book. It stayed with me long enough to recommend it to you.

The movement of Doreen’s Character Arc is a journey in its own right, showing her character move through the course of a memoir. We thought we knew her, and now we see we were wrong. This is the kind of simple message that builds hope in readers, as well as memoir writers. At the start of our own journey, we thought we knew who we were, and over time we evolve to become wiser about ourselves and the world.

To visit the Amazon Page, click here.
To visit Doreen Orion’s Home Page, click here.
To see the other two articles I wrote about this book, click here and here.

Writing Prompt
List the times “stuff” has been important to you. Each time you moved? What about divorce? Splitting up stuff is a huge part of that sad time. Did you have to deal with your parents’ stuff when they died or had to go into assisted living? Did you lose or break something that was important to you?

Writing Prompt
How will your character evolve from the beginning of the book to the end?

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