Shapeshifting, Costumes, and Imposters in Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

In myths, characters can sometimes change shape, for example transforming from man to wolf. Cinderella’s fabulous night out transformed her from a maid to a princess. The notion of moving from one role to another is not limited to fairy tales. Through costumes, cosmetics, hair style, and role-playing, we often alter the way we present ourselves to one another. In previous posts, I showed how ancient storytelling techniques helped Andre Agassi share his life in the memoir, “Open.” In this article, I show how changing shape or “shapeshifting” can help you add impact and authenticity to your memoir.

For the first 18 years of our lives, while we are trying to figure out who we are, our body is changing shape. So during our coming of age, we are all shapeshifters. During this period in Andre Agassi’s life, he had the additional complication of becoming famous. The public was trying to form an image of him, just as he was trying to form an image of himself. As a young man searching for his own teenage identity, he occasionally rebelled against rules, wearing different, non-regulation clothes. The public came to see him as a rebel.

His mane of gorgeous hair became his trademark. When it began to fall out in gobs he desperately tried to hang on to his old identity with wigs, terrified of being seen as a balding man. Finally he accepted the inevitable. He shaved his head, and radically changed his public image.

Writing Prompt

What alterations in your appearance could add nuance to passages in your memoir? Perhaps as you describe your shape, you will learn why people related to you the way they did.

Actors change shape all the time

Ironically, the person who encouraged Agassi to let go of this charade and shave his head was his first wife, Brooke Shields. This is especially interesting because during the course of their relationship, Shields was building her career as an actress and Agassi became increasingly unnerved by Shields’ ability to assume any role she was assigned to play. If she could play any character on demand, how did he know when she was sincere and when she was just acting?

These observations about his relationship with Shields show the confusing psychological aspects of being an actress as well as getting to know one. Through his eyes, I saw the connection between actors and the mythology of shapeshifting. Actors are paid to shift their shape.

Reluctant Shapeshifting is Common, Too

Whether we choose our new role, or have it thrust on us, it can take time to adjust. The transition period can be awkward or downright uncomfortable. When I first earned my Master’s Degree, I felt confident with clients, but in public, I didn’t feel like a therapist. Known as “imposter anxiety” this discomfort in a role is more common than you might think. For example, in “Down Came the Rain,” Brooke Shields looked at her newborn baby and was horrified to realize she wasn’t able to instantly shift into the new frame of reference of being a mom.

Writing Prompt

Consider situations in your own life when you felt like you were in a role that was “not really you.” This lag time during which you struggle to accept your role can help your readers relate to your growing-pains. Write a scene that shows your struggle. If later, you resolved the feeling and settled into the role, write a scene that shows your adaptation.

Notes

This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” For the start of the series, see
When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

For the Amazon page for Open, click here.

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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