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.

Insights from Brooke Shields’ celebrity memoir

by Jerry Waxler

I have been avoiding celebrity memoirs, because they often play by a different set of rules than other memoirs. They are often driven by name dropping and voyeurism, rather than great story principles. I love the pleasure of a fabulously written book, and celebrity-written books are not known for their literary merit. But I also want to know more about the insides of all kinds of people, not just literary giants. I am willing to setting aside elitist expectations of literary excellence to expand my own horizons.

All these thoughts went through my mind as I read the cover of Brooke Shields memoir, “Down Came the Rain” deciding whether to buy it or shelve it. This moment of reckoning is a great opportunity to understand the purchasing decision people will make when they pick up your memoir.

The celebrity phenomenon is a huge issue in our public life. We talk about celebrities, follow their work and their private lives, and weirdly often feel like we know them. I’m dieing to understand what makes all this so important and what it’s like for the people on the other side of the camera, and there’s the chance a memoir will provide insights.

Another reason I was willing to read this particular book is that it tells of her post-partum depression, a serious condition that I want to understand from inside. And once I started reading, I discovered she was unable to have a natural pregnancy, and so she threw herself into in vitro fertilization. I’ve heard this is a grueling experience, and I was interested to read what it felt like. She not only tells me the details of her feelings, but also provides the technical information to keep me informed and to help pace the story.

I’m pleased with the tone of the book. She has an engaging way of showing me situations, sharing conversations, and telling me how she thinks and feels, that lets me get inside the situation and feel it myself. That’s what I want from a memoir, and she is accomplishing that.

Amidst her celebrity life, she’s also human, and I was able to find insights about how life works for her. For example, in the first scene in the book, while she is backstage waiting for her cue at a live performance, she gets a phone call that tells her the fetus she is carrying is dead. Here in real life was an example of the saying, “The show must go on.” She responded to her cue and went on stage moments later. It was a great glimpse into the emotional complexity of being a performer. And it was also a good example of the unthinkable interface between normalcy and tragedy. None of us can pick the most convenient time for tragedy, and often we learn something awful at the worst possible moment.

Another celebrity-oriented aspect of her story is about paparazzi and reporters. She avoids going to the hospital, because she doesn’t want to deal with the media exposure. When she’s leaving the hospital, she prepares herself to face the gauntlet of photographers. She breaks into tears, pulls herself together, pastes on a smile and walks out. The photographers lean close to her baby, and she feels a stab of fear, and then she gets into the car. She thinks, “at least none of them followed us home.” I’ve often thought this whole notion of being hounded by paparazzi is one of the most intrusive things any human being should be expected to endure. It would drive me completely nuts. And yet, performers are not supposed to complain, because it’s the attention of the media that fuels their financial success. So instead of complaining, Brooke Shields puts on a smile and keeps walking.

Such episodes may seem to apply only to celebrities. But there is a lesson here that could inform other memoirists. When the scene itself is so filled with tension, I don’t need to hear her complaint. I want to feel my own reactions, and I am perfectly capable of being sickened by this situation on my own. The fact is, complaints slow the momentum of the story. We generally want the protagonist to “deal with it” and move on.

This is the way literary memoirs work, too. Tobias Wolff, author of the superbly written “This Boy’s Life” lets the reader draw their own emotional conclusion. For example, when Wolff’s step-father steals the boy’s college savings, he asks his mother for more details about the disappearance of the money. “How could that happen?” But she doesn’t want to talk about it. She hates complaining, and changes the subject. Wolff, the protagonist is left to figure it out on his own. It’s a powerful scene, and not a bad model to follow for any memoirist looking for a tone that will carry the reader to the last page.

Note
Click here for a novel about postpartum psychosis

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.