by Jerry Waxler
Lisa Fineberg Cook’s memoir, “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is about the first year of her two year trip to Japan and, like many successful books, the structure fits nicely into the model of the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the universal myth made famous by Joseph Campbell, an ordinary person departs from their familiar setting, and enters the world of the adventure, which is governed by strange rules. The hero learns how to navigate within the new rules, overcomes obstacles and then returns home, armed with deeper wisdom.
(This is the third of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)
I have become accustomed to discovering this structure at the heart of many stories that I like, so I was not surprised to see it peeking out through the pages of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” The author travels from her familiar world of Los Angeles to the land of the adventure, Japan, where she must learn new rules. Inside herself, she overcomes the character flaws of being a spoiled teenager, and gradually becomes an adult. Like every Hero’s Journey, the conclusion of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” affirms the importance of challenging yourself in order to achieve deeper meaning.
Some of the iconic stories of our time have followed a similar pattern. “The Wizard of Oz” offers a perfect example. Dorothy leaves her home in Kansas and enters the land of Oz. Like Lisa Cook leaving Los Angeles, Dorothy is actually on two simultaneous journeys. On the outside, she must solve the puzzles of Oz. Inside herself, Dorothy wrestles with her immaturity to discover her strengths. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey loses his grip on ordinary life, and out in the cold cruel world he must reclaim his sense of purpose. In the memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup travels a similar road. She doesn’t lose money, the way George Bailey does. She loses her husband in a car accident. To earn a living and also look for meaning, she becomes a law enforcement chaplain and learns to steer through a world of legal violations and the cruelty of death.
Stories that make me feel wonderful often end with a celebration of family and community. Dorothy returns to Kansas armed with the wisdom to appreciate her parents’ love, and the assertiveness to fend off her bullying neighbor. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey discovers his importance in the community. In her memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup discovers that the antidote to evil and despair is the support of the community.
A Nuanced Ending Links Friendship and Maturity
When Lisa Fineberg Cook returns to Los Angeles at the end of the year, she meets her old friend Stacy. They go shopping and talk about their usual topics. As Lisa puts it, “When it comes to handbags and swimming pools, Stacey always comes first.” After her year of learning to cope in Japan, I was afraid that Lisa was backsliding. Did she forget everything she learned? She seems to ask herself the same question. But then, Lisa offers Stacey some advice and it appears that Lisa really has grown. Her interaction with her old girlfriend provides a foil that lets us see what she might have been like if she had stayed in Los Angeles. After a year away, Lisa’s world has expanded. Based on her well-earned maturity, our hero reaches back to her friend not in a needy way, but in a supportive one.
As the memoir finishes, I feel confident that the wisdom she found during her journey will help her relate more maturely to her husband, her students, and her friend. That’s a perfect example for the inner and outer trajectory of an excellent memoir.
Structural Bonus: One year, one trip
“Japan Took the JAP out of Me” offers another interesting insight for aspiring memoir writers. Even though she went to Japan on a two year contract, the memoir covers one year of that trip. The one-year cycle turns out to be an excellent mental model which helps readers visualize the beginning middle and end.
Experiment with different time frames for your own memoir. What period might help your reader form a better mental image of your journey?
Here are a few examples of memoirs that wrap their story in a well-defined period of time, or a trip, or both:
Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion
She travels around the U.S. in an attempt to combat mid-life crisis, and then returns home, wiser. Click here to see my series about “Queen of the Road” here.
Accidental Lessons by David Berner
His career as a radio broadcaster ends around the same time as his marriage. To reconstruct his life along more meaningful lines, he becomes a school teacher in a lower income community. At 50 years-old, he is the oldest and the newest teacher. The story takes place during one school year. Click here to see my series about Accidental Lessons.
Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald
To escape a stalker in Australia, Sarah McDonald follows her fiancé to India, where she becomes a religious tourist for one year.
Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
This memoir is about a motorcycle trip that follows the same route as Robert Pirsig wrote about in the classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Richardson returns to the road, reminiscing about Pirsig, and as the miles roll by under his wheels, he has plenty of time to muse about his own life, as well. Click here to read my essay about Zen and Now.
My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley
She returns to Kansas to try to make sense of her roots. The memoir loosely follows that journey. Click here to read my essay about Ruby Slippers.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.