by Jerry Waxler
This is a continuation of the series of articles about launching into adulthood inspired by Elna Baker’s memoir New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. Click here for the post about the journey from sex to love, and here for my article about the search for beliefs.
When I was 22, about the right age to become an adult, I decided that people who go to work every day were soulless drones. My decision to avoid adult responsibilities added many years to my transition into adulthood. Years later, I looked back on the mess I’d made of my launching years and assumed most of the confusion stemmed from the mass psychosis of the 60s, when millions of us had worked ourselves up into an anti-adult frenzy.
As I continued to grow through my protracted process of becoming an adult, I discovered that many people struggle to find the right job, even ones too young to know the difference between a hippie and a beatnik. (Answer: same thing, different decade)
In my fifties, when I finally returned to school for a graduate degree in counseling psychology, I took a course in career counseling and learned that helping people find a satisfying job is a whole career in itself. My career counseling course taught me the facts of other people’s struggles to find work, but I didn’t understand their stories until I began reading memoirs. Memoirs ushered me through the many tasks of growing up, including the sometimes-fascinating journey to earn money.
Some memoir authors have to find jobs in difficult circumstances. For example, Harry Bernstein’s second memoir, The Dream, takes place during the Great Depression. When he is walking around the city looking for work, he passes a mob of unruly men, shoving each other, frantically hoping to be selected for a job.
Some authors face obstacles within themselves. For example, in John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye, the author shows how his Asperger’s syndrome contributes to solving technical problems. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Asperger’s contributes to anti-social behavior toward his bosses that makes it difficult to hold down a job.
Some of the most interesting stories about finding work are by individuals who long, as I did, for a creative career. For example, Joan Rivers’ memoir Enter Talking describes the author’s desire to earn a living by making audiences laugh. Steve Martin is another world-famous comedian whose memoir, Born Standing Up, tells about his climb from a boy who wanted to do magic tricks to a household name.
At first these performers had to scrounge for work wherever they could get it. Joan Rivers regularly performed at strip clubs. Steve Martin, early in his career, was hired to perform at a restaurant. Even though the place was empty, the owner told him to perform anyway, because it would attract customers. Steve Martin’s performance to an empty room is not much different from the daily task of writing any memoir. At first, we all “perform” to an empty room.
Just as Steve Martin’s performance was supposed to attract customers, we writers hope to attract future readers. By giving the best performance we can muster, pouring our hearts onto the page, we establish exactly the kind of intimate connection that audiences seek.
Memoirs by stage performers underscore their author’s passion to move audiences, whether they do it from the stage or from the page. This desire to connect with an audience in both forms is beautifully portrayed by aspiring actress Elna Baker in her memoir New York Mormon Regional Singles Halloween Dance. To achieve her goal of becoming an actress, she moves to New York city and auditions for roles.
While waiting to be called back, she takes a job as a demonstrator in a toy store. The job requires acting skills, but instead of transporting audiences to higher realities, she is paid to convince children to fall in love with expensive dolls. She also works as a waitress in a bar, a job filled with colorful possibilities, especially since she doesn’t drink alcohol.
After a few such experiences, she notices that her attempts to become an actress are generating interesting anecdotes. So while she waits to be cast in someone else’s story, why not play herself in her own story? She discovers a hip storytelling scene, in venues such as The Moth in New York, This American Life on NPR, and First Person Arts in Philadelphia. She tells her stories to live and radio audiences, using her acting skills to dramatize her journey to become an actress. Eventually her oral stories make their way into writing, and then become a memoir.
Elna Baker’s struggle to earn a living through storytelling resonates with the desire lurking in every memoir writer’s heart. We too hope that by sharing our stories, we can earn a more public place in society, lifting and entertaining readers, one at a time. Most of us wouldn’t complain if those readers also were willing to pay for the privilege. In reality, few of us will earn enough money to supplement our careers, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
For example, when Stephen Markley graduated college, he was desperate to earn a living as a writer. At the age of 24, he pitched an idea to write a memoir about writing a memoir. Against impossible odds, he sold it, resulting in the excellent book, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book. For both Stephen Markley and Elna Baker, the project of earning a living became ridiculously intertwined with writing stories about earning a living.
Memoir writers exist beyond the last page of the book
Elna Baker’s search for a career doesn’t end with a satisfying conclusion. By the last page, she has not “made it” as an actress. Sadly, she is not sure what she’s going to do. In a previous post I wrote about the ambiguity of Elna Baker’s sexual launching. By the end of the book, she didn’t achieve her goal of finding love any more than she found a career. Despite the ambiguity of the ending, I loved the book and highly recommend it. But why was I satisfied with a character who seemed to feel stranded at the end?
I have been asking myself the same question since Frank McCourt got off the boat at the end of Angela’s Ashes and ended with all sorts of unresolved problems. After reading Elna Baker’s memoir, I realize the answer goes to the heart of the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
At the end of novels, we know their heroes live only inside the imaginary world created by the author. They have no life of their own. Unlike them, memoir heroes continue to grow and change. At the very least, we know they have spent a considerable amount of time and effort figuring out how to share their stories. And we usually know a great deal more about them than that. We can look up their circumstances on their websites, follow their job history on linkedin, read their blogs, and watch their interviews.
The fact that fiction characters only live inside the story is called “the fourth wall” and when those characters reach out to talk to the audience, they are said to “break the fourth wall.” Memoir characters break the fourth wall all the time.
One of my main pleasures in reading memoirs is this connection with a live person. Inside the pages of the book, I learned about them inside the bounds of their stories. In addition, I often have an opportunity to find out more about how they live outside the pages.
We relate to heroes in thrillers and myths because of their larger-than-life achievements, grace, beauty, courage, and other mythical qualities. We bond with memoir heroes for entirely different reasons. As real people, they help us understand that humans are flawed, they can teach us amazing things about life, and for those of us aspiring to write memoirs, they can teach us about writing our own.
So when I heard Elna Baker was teaching a life-writing course at First Person Arts in Philadelphia, I signed up. I joined a room full of aspiring storytellers, and when she walked into the training room with her four-legged companion, she didn’t just break the fourth wall. She exited her story and helped us with ours.
By this time, she was a producer for the NPR series This American Life, and well on her way to earning a living as a storyteller. It turned out she was not only a great teller. She was a great listener and teacher, as well. After each of us shared a glimpse of our lives, she offered wise advice for how to strengthen the story and make it more accessible and compelling.
Some of us were young, and looking to launch ourselves into the wage-earning part of our lives. Others of us were much older, looking to launch from a private to a more public version of ourselves. In either case, we shared the performer’s passion, wanting to reach out to an audience, in exchange for a couple of dollars, a few laughs and tears, and if we were lucky, applause at the end of the story.
Write a scene about struggling to figure out the right job. Perhaps you talked to a career counselor, or took a job you knew was “wrong” for you, or tried to get into a career that seemed perfect, but something got in the way. After you write this scene of struggle, write another one in which you enjoyed a moment at work – for example, joking with coworkers, or finishing a project.
Click here for Elna Baker’s home page.
Click here to listen to a recording of Elna Baker’s story about demonstrating baby-dolls here:
Click here for Philadelphia’s First Person Arts [LINK]
Click here for Stephen Markley’s memoir, Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.