by Jerry Waxler
(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)
The first chapter of John Robison’s memoir “Look me in the eye” was called “Little Misfit,” because Robison didn’t know how to get along with other kids, and he never seemed to do anything right. That might have set the stage for a Coming of Age story, but by the time he was 16, he had many more questions than he had answers. He left home and set off on a journey to figure it all out. His self-discovery took him the rest of his life. And I believe that’s why I love this book so much. The book does turn out to be a Coming of Age story — one that never ends.
The first time I heard a 65 year old woman say, “I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to be when I grow up” I laughed. And I also agreed with her sentiment. Decades trickle by, families grow up, jobs come and go, but exactly which morning are we supposed to wake up and say, “Oh. That’s what it was all about.” The only way I’ve found to tie it all together is to find the story. And that’s what Robison did. He lived, he learned, he grew, and then he wrote about it. Now I want to understand how he did it so I can do it too.
The long middle
Most people who consider writing a memoir wonder if our years in the office or taking kids to soccer have turned us into drones, and so we utter the familiar cry, “Who would want to read about me?” We can go a long way towards answering that question when we review events and look under the surface. The passions and desires unfolded day by day, too slowly to make sense of at the time. Gradually, those days accumulated into our unique story, and now in retrospect we can find their significance.
To learn how you might tell your own long periods, consider the way John Robison showed his years in an office as a technology worker. Rather than excruciating detail, he highlighted key points. He described a few pranks in keeping with his passion for practical joking. He felt good about some of his contributions to the company, and felt bad about the corporate mentality and the lack of appreciation for individual initiative. He showed what he went through in snapshots, giving us the picture without boring us. His scan across those years, provides the insight you can see when you look back across your own journey. The middle years were steps on a longer road.
I always wondered why the Israelis had to cross the desert for 40 years. Now that I’m studying stories, I realize those long years represent a sort of “baking period” in the middle of life during which the inner self continues to grow. John Robison didn’t shy away from the fact that he worked in an office. And by looking at those jobs through the longer lens of a memoir, he revealed their secret. They were steps on a longer road. By including these periods, “Look Me in the Eye” offers a role model for all us who seek to understand how to transform memories into a story.
Robison’s persistent desire to grow creates a potential problem. Every good story ends with relief of dramatic tension. Through the book, we readers have been growing with him, step by step. How do we know when we’ve reached the goal? Robison signals the conclusion of his journey by using an ancient storytelling technique. When Robison grows older, he moves back to the town where he started.
Moving back to the suburbs doesn’t sound like much of a story element, but it turns out the simple idea of returning home has enormous power in storytelling circles. It even has a Greek name, “nostoi.” (I love it when I know a Greek name for a concept.) Once you start to look for it, you will discover this simple device everywhere. Ulysses returns to his home at the end of Homer’s Odyssey. The Hobbits return home at the end of Lord of the Rings. Homecoming can be symbolic as well. For example, in Barack Obama’s “Dreams of Our Father,” Obama returns to the home of his African father, a sort of ancestral returning.
Robison started in life unable to connect with other children, but easily being able to turn within his own mind. The adults around him had no clue what was going on, and he was frequently shamed for his differences. Had he stayed home, and accepted the shaming comments he might have turned out to be the failure everyone expected him to be. When John Robison went on his journey of self-discovery, he wasn’t setting out to be a hero. He simply wanted to learn how to live well.
When Robison set out into the world, one of his first jobs was working as a special effects engineer for the famous rock and roll band, KISS. His own differences gave him the opportunity to see a different slice of life. Through the course of his years, he was learning about himself, and how to make the best use of his talents and personality.
Towards the end of “Look Me in the Eye,” Robison shifted his attention to raising his youngest son who had inherited some quirky Aspergian tendencies, such as fascination with machinery. So dad took his boy to the train yard to watch the big locomotives. It was a lovely scene, with a powerful storytelling twist. This little boy faced similar issues to the ones Robison faced, but this second time around, the child was neither lonely nor a “misfit.” By this time, Robison knew enough about his condition to help his son cope with it. Robison started his memoir in his own childhood, and ended raising his own children, a dramatic circle I found extremely satisfying.
Return from Hero’s Journey Armed with Wisdom
In fact, Robison story continues past the end of the memoir. He now gives talks to help parents cope and guide nerdy, withdrawn, Asperger’s spectrum children. He also speaks to children, helping them understand each other and themselves. Robison’s story emulates the classic Hero’s Journey. When the Hero Returns, his or her experiences can be used to serve the community. That turns John Robison’s memoir not into the finish line of his lifetime, but simply the end of a chapter. The next page begins with a life of involvement and service.
To decide where you want to begin the journey of your memoir, consider what sort of place and situation you were in when you started. Look at your hometown, your religion of origin, your initial dreams. Then as you come to the end of your story, see where you can “return” either physically to the same location, or symbolically to your roots.
The Hero’s Journey provides fascinating material for any writer. To learn more about how to apply these ideas to your story, read Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers.”
In my book, “Four Elements for Writers” I explore the way you can turn this myth towards your own writing behavior, and use it to develop tenacity and courage. [link]
Another book that uses exquisite understanding of storytelling principles is Sound of No Hands Clapping. (Click here to see my review.) This explores a powerful use of the “character arc” in memoir. The author, self-conscious as ever, teaches a lesson about storytelling embedded in his memoir, repeating ideas he heard in a workshop from famous storytelling teacher Robert McKee.
To learn more about Robison’s work with Asperger’s Syndrome, or to see how he is doing, check out his blog, jerobison.blogspot.com For more information about the Asperger’s condition, he recommends the website, http://www.aspergersyndrome.org/
Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]
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.
Great post Jerry. Appreciate you sharing. Being a genealogist I have written my family history and am now writing a narrative version of the experiences of my grandfather. It is surprising how interesting the events of the lives of average people when set in historical perspective can be so fascinating.
“The beautiful thing about memoirs is that they force us to review those periods and look under the surface. The passions and desires unfolded day by day, too slowly to make sense of at the time. Gradually, those days accumulated into our unique story, and now in retrospect we can find their significance.”
This is what I’m learning as I work on my own memoir. It’s one thing to remember an event, but it’s quite another to consider how that event shaped my current outlook. Sometimes, in the digging, we find that an event or individual had a bigger impact than we ever realized.
Thanks for the reminder, Jerry. Keep up the great posting!
Thanks so much for these comments, Brian and Steve. It’s awesome that you are both doing this work and reaping the rewards. And thanks for your thanks. One of the secrets of blogging is that they create these little micro-communities across the internet.
It’s kind of strange, reading an analysis of my storytelling. I did not actually know the names or historical significance of the parts of the story. I guess I just grew up that way, and I must have it in me somehow, nameless as it may be.
I would not describe it as a hero’s journey but I do think my story is inspiring to the younger people I talk to, and that is something to feel good about.
To me, the key to a book like mine is stringing ordinary, everyday events together in a way that’s funny and entertaining (to keep people reading) and yet still deliver a message (to have some social purpose.)
Thanks so much for the comment, John Robison! It’s so cool to see your words here. In Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” he says writing is magic. Writers sit in a room somewhere transmitting thoughts out into the world. My blog and your comment extend the magic, turning it into a conversation over space and time.
I’m not surprised that you didn’t break your storytelling into parts. That’s the way most experts work. They “just do it.” There’s a theory in psychology called “modeling” that says you can learn how to perform complex skills by studying experts, “unpacking” their actions, breaking their expertise down into steps. Here’s a wiki page about it. As I strive to organize my thoughts about my own life, I am learning as much as I can from people who have successfully done it already. I’m having fun, gaining exciting insights into story telling and life writing, and sharing my insights with others who want to accomplish these goals.
I actually realized someting else, Jerry. Some of the sense of pacing in the story is due to the efforts of my editor, Rachel Klayman. One of her many contributions was to take my chapters and rearrange them so they flow better. She’s the reason it starts and ends where it does. I wrote all the material, and then she worked to order it in the most effective way, which is not always obvious to me.
Often, when I write the pieces, I really don’t see when one part should be placed earlier or later.
That’s a good example of what a good editor does. I know many people think editors just mark punctuation and such, but one like Rachel is so much more than that. We really worked together to assemble the book inito the form you see today.
In addition to arranging, she also picked up holes that needed filling. She’d say, “here everything is fine and two pages later you move out. We need some explanation.” And I’d write the missing material. That’s another vital job, because the author is often too close to the story to see the holes.
Thanks for sharing your experience, John Robison. Aspiring writers love to know what goes on behind the scenes of a best selling book, and it is fascinating to hear how your process worked.
While we “pre-published,” or self-published authors don’t have access to the heavy hitting editors provided by big publishing companies, many writers including myself have hired freelance editors to help us get some of these benefits. We can also receive editing direction from critique groups, which serve as a sort of “focus group” for writers, to help us figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Thought I’d let you know your writing prompt gave me a good idea for jogging my memory. I’m three hours away from my home town, but I can go to similar venues right here, like the skating rink, and use it to start the flow.
I find a physical element to looking back is a great help.
Yes I do like to hear that the writing prompt is working for you. Thanks for sharing your success.