by Jerry Waxler
I found insight into the power of memoirs from a surprising source, the movie Pursuit of Happyness. The movie is based on a true story about Chris Gardner, down on his luck in San Francisco in 1981. Gardner, played by superstar Will Smith, is working at a dead end sales job that has left him unable to pay his rent. Gardner, a single father, struggles to stop the downward slide into homelessness. Despite his effort, he continues to fall, sleeping on trains, in bathrooms, and shelters. And through a tenacity that is almost incomprehensible in its ferocity, he keeps his wits and determination, striving to provide for himself and his son.
Then he gets a break. He is accepted as a stockbroker trainee at a major financial firm, Dean Witter. But it’s not over yet. He must prove himself before he can get the job. He grips this first rung on the ladder while circumstances continue to pull him down into the abyss. To earn enough money to live, after a full day at Dean Witter he goes out to ply his other sales job, selling diagnostic equipment to doctors. Then he retrieves his kid from daycare, and starts the nightly search for a place to sleep. In the end his tenacity pays off. He is accepted as a stockbroker. It’s based on a true story, and the real man went on to become a millionaire and a social activist.
In the bonus material at the end of the DVD, there is an interview with Chris Gardner that turns this from a good movie into a fascinating exploration of a memoir. When they started filming a movie of his life, the producers asked Gardner, who by this time was a wealthy man, if he would he be able to handle the emotional turmoil of revisiting this humiliating, dark period in his life. He was willing to try, placing himself in an unusual position of watching Hollywood specialists reenact his circumstances. For example, they recreated the day care center where he had to drop off his boy, and designed a set to mimic the station bathroom where he slept when there was no room at the homeless shelter. Through the process Gardner saw his life acted out.
As you organize your thoughts about your own memoir, consider the power of reenactment. You can gain many of the benefits Gardner got, without having a multi-million dollar Hollywood production team. A much more modest effort to act out your past can provide you with surprising insights.
While I don’t have acting or drama experience myself, I have experienced the power of reenactment in a type of therapy group called psychodrama. In this method, without formal props or acting training, the psychodrama leader directs the group through a reenactment. The actors are selected from your fellow group members. As each actor comments on how the drama feels from their own point of view, you find yourself revisiting important scenes in your life, this time accompanied by concerned participants and observers.
If you don’t have access to a psychodrama group, you can achieve insights with a few friends. Organize the scene, and play out the various roles. I’m not talking about stage acting here. No one is going to pay to see it. It’s like a primitive sketch that helps you see things in a new light. You can even do it alone. Imagine the scene yourself, put yourself in each character’s shoes and see what you would say.
Consider this example. I try to remember a scene with my brother. We’re in the basement. He is studying and I am soldering a transistor, helping him build a hi-fi kit. The room is dark, except for the lamps each of us is working under. He is building the hi-fi because he’s moving away to go to Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, which would make him 17 and me 10. I don’t remember the conversation, so I pretend. I say, “Ed, I enjoy helping you. I’m going to miss you.” Now I ask a friend to pretend to be Ed, but the friend doesn’t know what to say. So we switch places. My friend, now playing me, says, “Ed, I enjoy helping you.” Now that I’m sitting in Ed’s chair, I imagine what he would say. I struggle but don’t say anything. As Ed, I’m preoccupied with studying, and nervous and excited about going away. Sitting in his chair helped me understand how he felt. We’re boys. Of course we don’t talk about feelings. Now I’m me again. I feel lonely. I’m glad he’s letting me help him with the soldering.
So what feelings did Chris Gardner report about making a movie of his life? Here’s what he says in the interview at the end of the DVD. “I didn’t know if I was ready for it. But this whole process, this entire production helped me tremendously, by helping me to create, if you will, new memories of San Francisco, instead of the film I had been running in my mind for the last 23 years. It’s part of letting go. It’s been a beautiful experience in that regard.” By revisiting the past, he has relieved some of its pain.
There is a powerful symbolic gesture at the very end of the movie that evokes the mysterious journey through time. Actor Will Smith walks along the street, ready to embark on his new life. Across his path walks the actual man Chris Gardner, successful, and now famous. Smith turns around to look at the person he will become 23 years later.
Writing prompt: Pick a scene in your past that continues to hold mystery and power. To help you write about it, think of it as a stage play, and you are the screenwriter and director. Write stage directions. And then try acting it, either exactly as it happened or improvise to create another way it might have happened.