How These Memoir Authors Emerged Into Adulthood

by Jerry Waxler

To learn how to write my memoir, I have been reading memoirs. The more I read, the more I learn not just about how to write a memoir, but also how other people’s lives worked, through a variety of situations and stages. And from this research about others, I learn more about myself. In the following list of memoirs, I show a number of examples of how memoir authors experienced this complex transition from childhood into adulthood. By seeing how this period contained so much dramatic tension for these authors, you may gain some insight into the dramatic tension of your own transition into adulthood.

Escaping gangs

Kids in ghettos are pressured from an early age to join gangs and get involved with drugs. It would be easy to stay within this lifestyle. The three men who wrote their story in “The Pact” by Drs. Sampson Davis George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, were facing exactly that situation. But they stuck together, using the school system, combined with their mutual respect and support to escape the pull of the ghetto, becoming doctors, and then turning back to their community to inspire others to follow their lead.

Emerging From Foster Care

A child in the foster care system, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, constantly felt disconnected from her caregivers, as she moved from one home to another. Finally adopted as a teenager, she turned her disrupted childhood into a successful young adulthood. After this difficult turnaround, she launched successfully, going to college and becoming a national spokesperson for foster care. Her memoir “Three Little Words” enables her to share her message.

Related Essay: Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Smashed trying to do the right thing

Jim McGarrah’s childhood in a safe, healthy Midwest town came to a crashing halt, not when he made a terrible mistake, but when he tried to do the right thing. He joined the army, against his veteran father’s advice, and through the course of his launching became demolished by the horrors of war. As portrayed in his recently published memoir “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” the young man at the end of the launching was just a shadow of the hopeful, energetic one who started it.

Related Essay: Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war

Smashed by sex and drugs

Dani Shapiro’s life had all the right ingredients. She came from a wealthy family, attended a top liberal arts school in New York, picking up an occasional job as a model or actress. Then, an affair with her best friend’s father pulled her into the undertow of drugs, alcohol and obsession. She was crashing on the launch pad. A tragic accident involving her parents shook her out of her stupor. She regained her footing, returned to school, and by the end of the memoir “Slow Motion” was ready to reenter society.

Related Essay: What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?
Dani Shapiro Seeks Spirituality Through Memoir

A detour into temporary stardom

Dee Dee Phelps, author of “Vinyl Highway” was an ordinary high school girl who liked to sing. With all the advantages of a middle class girl in the early 60s, her path seemed straight and sure: find a husband, and settle down. But she took a huge detour. A guy she knew asked her if she would join him as a singing partner. They formed a popular duet called Dick and Dee Dee.

She had a meteoric rise to a famous singer who toured the world and appeared regularly on television in the 60s. Over the next few years, musical tastes changed rapidly and her partnership with Dick collapsed. Dropping out of the stars, she returned to her original life, ready for the next step of her delayed path towards a more traditional adulthood.

Related Essay: Fame and Story Structure in Dee Dee’s 60’s memoir
To read the two part interview with the author: Click Here for Part 1 and … Here for Part 2

A perfect career left some questions unanswered

Soon after high school, Jancee Dunn landed a job at the magazine Rolling Stone, interviewing celebrities in print and on camera. Despite these glorious encounters, or perhaps because of them, she still needed to develop her own sense of identity, purpose and relationships. Her memoir, “Enough about me” is an excellent travelogue through this period of self-discovery.

Related Essay: Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

Double-launch, injury forces a second coming

George Brummell, author of the memoir “Shades of Darkness,” grew up in the Jim Crow south. In the early sixties, he escaped into the military. His assignment in Korea seemed like a storybook case of letting the military help him grow up and see the world. It came crashing down in Vietnam when a landmine blinded him and permanently damaged his arm. As a civilian, he successfully found a new path, going to college, and landing a job as an executive in the Blinded Veterans commission.

Related Essay: Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

Double-launch, Failure of first launch hurls Joan Rivers into a second

When Joan Rivers’ first marriage failed, she decided to trade in her promising career at a department store for the shady and uncertain future of a performer. She tried her hand as an actress, and then decided there were more opportunities in stand up comedy. The memoir “Enter Talking” follows her grueling journey from her early dreams to her on-air meeting with Johnny Carson that finally launched her into her second self.

Related Essay: Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers

Ambiguous Launch into the world, but still many questions

Frank McCourt, grew up in Ireland, and from early childhood, he was burdened by a father whose devotion to liquor came first. The chaos and poverty hobbled McCourt’s march to adulthood, dragging him down. The book “Angela’s Ashes” shows McCourt crawling across the finish line of childhood. Geographically he escaped his childhood by traveling from Ireland to the U.S. but emotionally he had not yet come of age, leaving the door open for a sequel in which he could continue to grow up.

Greg Mortenson’s long sputtering journey towards adulthood

Greg Mortenson could not quite find the path into adulthood. Passionate about climbing mountains, he maintained a marginal lifestyle that gave him the freedom to climb in the Himalayas. Lost one day in those mysterious mountains, he literally stumbled on his true mission. He would build schools for the poor people in remote regions of Pakistan. Without even knowing what he was doing, he became a social entrepreneur, raising money and lobbying for his cause. His desire to serve forced him to launch. In “Three Cups of Tea” he describes his long journey from child to fully engaged member of society.

Related Essay: “Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”

Mental misfit eventually finds rightful place

John Robison’s launching seemed sluggish. In midlife he was still trying to find his center. After decades of trying to put his life together piece by piece, a casual diagnosis of Asperger’s made him realize he had been carrying an extra load. Armed with this new perspective, he looked back upon his life and understood more about how it worked. He became a more complete human being by turning his newfound wisdom towards raising awareness about Asperger’s through public speaking and writing the memoir “Look Me in the Eye.”

Related essay: John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

Trauma that smashes launching in mid-stream

Some launchings are going along well, and then a violent intrusion wrecks the road, turning what was supposed to be ordinary life into a struggle to survive.

“Lucky” by Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold’s “Lucky” portrays a devastating reshaping of a life after she was violently raped during college. The memoir portrays her long search to regain innocence and peace.

Related Essay: Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma

“Picking Cotton” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton

Another young woman’s life was torn to pieces by rape, but her journey back to adulthood was marked by an amazing story. Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton is co-written by the man who was falsely imprisoned for raping her. “That night two lives were destroyed.” The man she accused of the rape turned out to be exonerated, and her second launching has taken place in the social activism of reducing the number of such mistakes in the present.

Related Essay: Mistaken Identification: A memoir of injustice and redemption

“Crazy Love” by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Leslie Morgan Steiner, a Harvard graduate and rising magazine editor was set up for spectacular success. Falling in love with and marrying an abusive man, she quickly found herself struggling for her life. She tells the story in her memoir “Crazy Love.”

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.

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