Cast of Characters in His Chosen Clan

by Jerry Waxler

I used to think that heroes tended to be lonely but when I read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” I realized they are not so lonely after all. It’s true they must leave home to go off on their adventures, which at first makes them seem isolated. But they soon collect allies. King Arthur was surrounded by his Knights of the Roundtable. The Hobbits traveled with a band of companions called the Fellowship, and in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gathered the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. Similarly, memoir protagonists often attract a group of friends and followers.

Consider world famous tennis player, Andre Agassi, hero of the memoir “Open.” Before he could afford to hire companions, his brother accompanied him on tours. As his career grew, so did his band of allies. He hooked up with professional sports trainers and strategists, a personal racquet stringer, and a spiritual mentor. This cast of supporting characters culminated in a perfect match with his soul mate, Steffi Graf, another world-famous tennis player.

Agassi did more than mention these people. He freely shared his debt to them, almost devotionally letting us see that even though he was the one out in the spotlight, his crew deserved a substantial portion of the credit for his success. One of his most damning criticisms of his first wife, Brooke Shields, was that she didn’t grasp the importance of the clan in his life.

Most memoir authors don’t have an entourage. For example, in “Zen and Now,” author Mark Richardson rode his motorcycle alone, occasionally meeting people on the road. One reason I found this book so haunting was because the author’s soul mates lived in a different time. In the present, he could only gather their ghosts. At the other extreme, in “The Path, One Man’s Quest on the Only Path there is,”  Donald Walters moved into an ashram. Sarah McDonald is somewhere in the middle. Her year in India is assisted by a couple of friends and the staff at her apartment, who help her understand the local culture.

A chosen family plays a central role in my own story. When I left home, I turned into a classic loner, essentially a recluse. Later, the pendulum swung and I moved in to a commune where I could enjoy both extremes. I could be as withdrawn as I wanted to be by closing the door to my room, and when I wanted company, I simply walked out into the kitchen to be with my band of allies.

Writing Prompt

The power of the chosen clan may add depth and interest to your own memoir. In different stages in your life, what micro-community gave you social context? Write a few scenes that show how you relied on them for support and companionship.


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.

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

When the hero of the television show “Kung Fu” smashed faces, I cheered him on, without pausing to consider that I don’t like pain, and usually admire people for more peaceful behavior. After reading the memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly I have now had an opportunity to think more about what should have been obvious all along – if you hit someone in the face, it’s going to hurt.

Polly was raised to be a nice guy, intent on being kind to people, but he also wanted to learn how to stand up for himself. So when he dropped out of Princeton to learn to fight at a Chinese monastery, one of his goals was to become less of a nice guy and more of a “bad ass.”

Dark side of heroes

Polly analyzed his opponents during a fight, learning to intentionally mislead them so they wouldn’t be able to predict his next move. Inflicting pain was his goal, and he was proud to achieve it. But hurting people sounds like something bad guys do. Aren’t protagonists supposed to be “good”?

The question has haunted me my whole life, not just about heroes in books but about my own behavior. Somehow I had formed the idea that emotions made me look flawed, so I thought I was supposed to hide my emotions. As a result, I appeared stiff and remote, an image that turned people off. Instead of convincing them to like me more, my behavior gave them reasons to like me less.

As my memoir took shape, a more troubled and prickly young man emerged than I ever realized. However, when I saw this flawed character on the page, it didn’t look as bad as I had always feared. Instead, I realized many heroes have edgy, even repugnant character flaws. Homer’s Ulysses was impulsive. Hamlet was self-involved. Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict. And despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, readers identify with the hero. So why shouldn’t the hero of my memoir also be flawed? This acceptance of my faults liberated me from the exhausting work of pretending I’m perfect.

Matthew Polly apparently understood this principle. He made no attempt to hide his bloodlust, or his inner conflicts. Underneath his exterior projection, I felt the adrenaline surging through his body and shutting down his thoughts tightening the bond between an authentic author and a curious reader.

Hard body parts are tools of the trade

In the Kung Fu tradition, fighters selected their own specialized fighting technique and that technique became their trademark. One type of specialty, called Iron Kung Fu, required the fighter to develop enormous strength and hardness in a part of their anatomy such as their forearm or neck.

Polly met a practitioner of Iron Crotch and accepted an invitation to go with the man to visit his rural village. The fighter, who was singularly unattractive, apparently benefitted at least in one way from focusing so much attention on his genitals. On the trip home, he stopped off at various homes to pay respects to a half dozen women, and the babies he fathered.

At first, the practice of Iron Kung Fu sounds weird and foreign. With a little reflection, you see that mixing matter with flesh is a common occurrence. In the childhood tale of Peter Pan, I was fascinated by Captain Hook’s prosthesis, and the peg legs often sported by pirates. Many modern Superheroes have non-flesh appendages such as the blades that spring out of Wolfman’s hands and the web that spins from Spiderman’s wrists.

Once you start looking, you notice real humans also use matter to extend their capability. Modern people wear breast implants, tooth implants, artificial heart valves and pacemakers, insulin pumps. Rappers mount diamonds on their teeth. Wigs are artificial. So are clothes, jewelry, and eye glasses. Exploring these extensions of self into matter can extend your understanding of how you operate in the world.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene about some inanimate extension of your own body, and see how it affected your emotional well-being, your sense of wholeness, or on the other hand, talk about how it felt foreign and strange.

Fighting Technique with an American Slant

Polly decided not to study the Iron Crotch technique. Instead he invented his own fighting specialty called “Crazy American.” Taking advantage of the prejudice Chinese people had about Americans, Polly acted like he was out-of-control, intimidating people without striking a single blow.

Writing Prompt
What sorts of manipulative behavior have you used in order to gain some influence over people? Write a scene about a time when you intentionally acted out or in other ways played a role, in order to create a desired effect in the people around you.

To read part 1 of my review about “American Shaolin” click here.

To visit the Amazon page for Matthew Polly’s Memoir, “American Shaolin” click here.

To visit Matthew Polly’s Home Page, click here.

Gary Presley in “Seven Wheelchairs” proposed the unusual idea that the wheelchair was an extension of himself. To read my essay on this compelling memoir click here.

Turn economic hardships into stories of strength

by Jerry Waxler

Jutting out of the landscape of our lives are those times when we struggled to provide for ourselves and our family. Whether we were transitioning to a new career or scrambling to recover from a layoff or other setback, we stumbled through uneven and unfamiliar territory. Years later, we take pride in our effective decisions and the cunning with which we applied old skills and learned new ones. We overcame discouragement and other obstacles and survived. Now as we tell the story of those triumphs, we develop our role as the hero at the center of our own life.

But what about today’s challenges? In the last few years, millions of us lost savings and jobs, forcing us into economic changes we didn’t anticipate. In some distant future, when we write the memoir of these times, we will again discover the resilience, strengths, and the excitement of the story. But for now, it’s hard to feel like a hero, constrained as we are by the narrower scope of just getting through the day.

One way to improve your perspective is to develop as quickly as possible the story of these hard times. Stories let you grasp the whole situation, letting strength dominate worry. Through stories you can find courage, poise, and make better sense of your choices. And stories have one more benefit. They let you share your experiences, providing an opportunity for mutual support. I have been following two organizations who have taken a keen interest in turning stories of economic survival into the shared experience of a community.

One group, called Civic Ventures, was founded by Marc Freedman, author of the book “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman.” Freedman’s organization, Civic Ventures now also publishes the Encore Careers website to provide a forum for people going through the transition to a new career. The site is loaded with stories of people who have reinvented themselves, turning loss and frustration into a catalyst for renewal.

The other organization that is encouraging people to tell their stories is First Person Arts, . Their programs help people share the artistry of life experience through paintings, video, and written works. First Person Arts even conducts “story slams” in Philadelphia, adding live performance to the teller’s repertoire.

Because of the historic changes in the economy in the last year, First Person Arts has launched a national story writing contest, to solicit stories of how individuals are coping and adapting and reacting to hardship. Inspired by the explosion of storytelling in the Great Depression, the First Person Arts contest encourages people to find their stories and share them. For more about the contest, click here.

To organize your story, consider the universal framework that converts life experience into a narrative form that other people will relate to. In the beginning there is a protagonist who wants something – in this case economic survival, with a dash of dignity and satisfaction. On the road towards that goal, you push through or outsmart the obstacles. You gather allies and skills, and overcame discouragement. By the end, you achieve some goal. To help you get the ball rolling, I’ve listed a few questions. Try answering them as if you are giving an interview. (If you’d like, post them here, or on other storytelling sites.)

“What was your goal?”

Look for a mix of motivations that drove you forward. Be specific (“I want my old job back”) or general, (“I want to find satisfaction”). In fact, this may be the most important part of the exercise. By trying to explain what creates the dramatic tension in your story, you will begin to see it more clearly yourself.

“What were the main obstacles that blocked you from achieving that goal?”

The external ones will be relatively obvious, like money, education, or age. But like any good story, there is also an inner dimension. What did you fear? What options were you reluctant to face? Did you impulsively lunge forward, meaning your biggest obstacle was lack of clear thinking? Turn storytelling into a mirror. As you explain your story to others, you’ll understand more about yourself.

“What tools, allies, and choices helped you overcome these obstacles?”

In any good story, the thrill is seeing the protagonist overcome the enemies, and reach the end of the maze. How did you do it? What mentors gave you  advice? What learning did you acquire? Cleverness is a fun story element. What choice felt especially cunning?

“What milestones did you pass?”

Describe the important milestones to let the reader see how things moved from beginning to end.

“When did you know you ‘arrived’?”

The satisfaction of reading the story comes from achieving or releasing the dramatic tension you established at the beginning.

“What would tell others who want to make this journey?”

A good story often has a second payoff. After the external goal is achieved (you got the job), you can offer the reader the additional reward of offering what you learned or how you grew.

It will take additional effort and skill to polish your interview and turn it into something fun to read. But it’s worth it. While you challenge yourself to achieve the goal, you’ll also be gaining some lovely benefits, not the least of which is to increase your ability to tell a story. Learning this knack of telling your story could be the best investment you can make, because once you own the skill, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life.