by Jerry Waxler
Every time I finish reading a memoir, I wonder how the author turned life into a story. After years of trying, I believe I have found a simple formula. Each book follows the author from the seed of some desire, through the journey, until they achieve their goal. Now all I need to do is apply that formula to my own memories. For every desire that propelled me, I search for the path it forced me to travel.
When I review my life, I immediately see my desire to become an adult. I remember that journey well because I had to struggle so long and hard to make it. Many aspects of early life eluded me. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to my family, or my peers. I couldn’t figure out sex, or money, or where to live. As soon as I was able, I moved 1,000 miles, from the east coast to the Midwest, and when that wasn’t far enough, I moved to the other coast, 3,000 miles from Philadelphia.
We all face this fundamental need to grow up, so it’s not surprising that some of the most popular memoirs of our era have been about the complex, sometimes disturbing process of Coming of Age. For example, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle,” and Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club,” all guide us through that period in the author’s life.
When we finally reached adulthood, we embark on the long middle, when career and family carry us along for decades. My long career journey, from foundry worker to technical writer and programmer, then on to graduate school for counseling psychology took up most of my life, a journey so long and complex I can only make sense of it by looking back. Amidst those years, I traveled a number of other important paths, each driven by some need for love, survival, success. The desires were different, but the cycle was the same: I wanted. I tried. I overcame obstacles. This cycle, repeated dozens of times, provided the raw material for stories through the middle of life.
Then aching knees and sagging skin announced the passing years. At first I clung to youth, creating the stereotypical mid-life crisis. Time moved further and soon, I faced a new challenge. At 62 years old, I must invent myself again, adapting to a new stage of body-mind development. I dub this period my Second Coming of Age.
To prevent some of my earlier errors, and hopefully smooth my path, I scan for stories through the years, bringing me to today. What desires are creating the next chapter of my life, right now? I make a list. More than ever, I want to “give back” to society. I also thirst for spirituality. And my passion for creativity, rather than fading, continues to intensify.
It turns out that writing my memoir satisfies most of these desires. Writing gives me a daily dose of creativity and skill-building. It helps me become more psychologically tuned to my self and my world. And it gives me opportunities to connect with writers and readers in a meaningful way. It even brings spiritual rewards. As I continue to discover the protagonist of my memoir, I look for deeper principles that will help me make sense of the entire book of my life.
List the things you desired or needed during your first Coming of Age. Pick one desire and list the obstacles that stopped you from achieving that thing. Now write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming that obstacle.
List desires that are motivating you now. (For example, learning your heritage, connecting with readers, improving your credentials, satisfying a creative urge, serving a cause.) Pick one, and list the obstacles. Write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming one of these obstacles.
Link: See my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy for another discussion of the needs of human beings.
The universal stages of life were explored in the Twentieth Century by psychologist Erik Erikson in his stages of Psychosocial development.
His stages of psychosocial development continue to inspire psychology students to slap their head and saying “Of course!”
William Shakespeare said it superbly in an often quoted line from “As You Like It”
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ brow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” – As You Like it, Jaques (Act II, Scene VII, lines 139-166)
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.