Two-Memoir Series about Youth, Midlife, and Responsibility

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This is the second part of a review of David Berner’s Any Road Will Take You There. Click here to read the first part.

In Accidental Lessons, David Berner’s first memoir, a middle-aged man looks for himself in the wider world. From one point of view, it’s the classic midlife abandonment, leaving his wife and kids. But there’s a twist. Instead of running away from responsibility, he takes a job as a school teacher and helps students grow.

David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, seems to follow a similar thread. Again, he leaves home to find meaning. But again, Berner is not exactly running away. This time he hits the road, but in a motor home. And he takes his sons with him.

The characters in Any Road Will Take You There are supposedly following the path of the beat generation of fifty years earlier, when young rebels flaunted the values of society.  But during this updated version, a middle-aged man celebrates social responsibility. By taking his sons along for the ride, Berner attempts to inspire them with the same book that inspired him in his youth. Passing along social values to one’s sons is the very definition of “tradition” and a fabulous sendup of Jack Kerouac’s rebellion. The interplay of the two forces, running away and returning, creates fascinating harmonics.

Within the container of the road trip, Berner is able to ponder the rebelliousness of his youth, and place those youthful impulses within the context of his mid-life crisis. With each passing mile, he moves farther and farther into his commitment to his children. Instead of renewing his commitment to self-indulgence, the way mid-life crises are expected to do, Berner renews his commitment to care for others.

Leaving Home is Only the First Half of the Hero’s Journey
According to Joseph Campbell’s influential book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, the story of the young warrior leaving home to find his place in the world is at the heart of civilization. Campbell finds some variation of this image of “going forth” in every culture on earth.

This desire to find truths somewhere else is not just ancient history. In modernity we continue to travel outward as if our lives depend on it. That spirit drove Europeans west across the American frontier. Jack Kerouac updated the image to a new generation. On the Road was like a starter pistol that launched ten thousand cars. When I drove to San Francisco in 1969, I was not simply looking for good weather. By rejecting my parents’ values, and even their presence in my life, I was following this exciting idea — find truth by abandoning everything you know and believe.

A decade later, most of us former hippies figured out how to establish our adult lives. To do so, we had to reconcile an important flaw in our idealism. By leaving everything behind we had fostered a valueless, chaotic society. But how had we been so misled by the universal myth of the hero? Surely a fundamental guideline of human experience couldn’t have been so out of kilter.

At the time, I couldn’t make sense of how far off track I’d gone, but I kept asking the question. Now, the Memoir Revolution is providing answers. When David Berner looks back across his life, the outward bound passion of our youthful rebellion is shown in a new light. David Berner and other middle-aged chroniclers of the social experimentation of the sixties are helping us update the Hero’s Journey to the twenty first century. Or more accurately, we are rediscovering that the Hero’s Journey has contained that deeper wisdom all along.

It turns out that by celebrating the “going forth” part of the Hero’s Journey, modern cultures have been glossing over the crucial outcome of the Hero’s Journey. At the end of the classic story, the hero returns home. As a returned adventurer, the ultimate goal of the hero is not to conquer the unknown. In the next leg of the journey, the goal is to bring back wisdom to share with the community. In its complete form, the Hero’s Journey is about building and sustaining communities.

David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There reminds us of this necessary completion of the Hero’s Journey. He springboards from Kerouac’s image of leaving home, but Berner’s variation on this journey has a wonderful twist. He exposes mid-life, not as a time to leave home, but as a time to reevaluate and renew his commitment to his community. As a teacher to his students and his sons, Berner reminds us that the hero’s journey ends with wisdom that will help maintain social values and raise responsible children.

Mid-life crisis corrected
In middle age, it’s natural to fear the whispers of one’s own mortality. As long as our culture only values the “going forth” half of the Hero’s Journey, these fears might prod us to renew our youthful attempt to leave everything, as if by going outward we can become heroes again. But by prolonging the adventuresome half of the journey, we miss the reward offered to us throughout the history of civilization. Instead of going out again, we can find peace and fulfillment by accepting the call to return.

David Berner’s story offers us that image. Instead of focusing on the first half of the Hero’s Journey, he glorifies the second. By returning to his children, and the students in his school, he offers his wisdom to young people so that they can live wiser lives, themselves.

The story of Any Road Will Take You There is seductively simple. Rent a van and go on holiday. However, Berner’s apparently simple send up of On the Road creates a complex backdrop. His first memoir Accidental Lessons adds even more context. Through his two memoirs, the author transforms his midlife crisis into a meditation about generations, about the responsibilities of fathers, about the power of literature to transform individual lives.

On The Road was Jack Kerouac’s roman a clef, that is a novel based on the adventures of one of the great reporters of the Beat Generation. David Berner has done an excellent job updating that message with a true life message of his own. By writing his memoir, Berner compares the “going forth” of the Beat movement in the sixties with the “return home” of the Memoir Revolution in the twenty-first century. In our era, we can complete the cycle: grow up, learn about the world, then by writing a memoir, bring our wisdom to the next generation.

Notes
David Berner’s Home Page
Click here for my review of Accidental Lessons
Click here to read an interview I did with David Berner

For another memoir about an idealistic response to midlife, read Janet Givens At Home on the Kazakh Steppe about a woman who volunteered for a Peace Corps stint at age 53. Click here for Janet Givens’ home page.

Click here for a list of memoirs I have read by authors who have written more than one.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

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.

Memoir of a Nervous Breakdown: Her Mind Betrayed Her

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

One night, when my dad came home from work, Mom told him in hushed tones that a neighbor had suffered a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t understand what that meant. Decades later, after I had achieved my master’s degree in counseling psychology, I still wasn’t able to form a clear mental image of a “nervous breakdown.”

The condition came into focus only after I began reading memoirs. In Darkness Visible, the famous author William Styron describes his psychotic break during severe depression. And in Unquiet Mind, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison describes her experiences during bipolar disorder.

As the Memoir Revolution continues to mature, increasing numbers of us are stepping forward to share the extraordinary experiences that impact our ordinary lives. In a recent memoir Tara Meissner takes advantage of this new freedom. Her memoir Stress Fracture provides a deeply introspective, well researched, and carefully explained account of her breakdown and recovery.

Stress Fracture begins with Tara Meissner growing up and like anyone else, striving toward a satisfying happy life, when, for some reason, her mind trips into freefall. Her strange thoughts lead to even stranger conclusions. Flooded with false reasoning that makes it impossible to function, she is confined in a hospital for her own protection. From inside the chaotic bubble, she wrestles with her thoughts, attempting to get them back into line with reality. The betrayal by her mind brings her pursuit of happiness to a screeching halt. And then, gradually, due to relentless effort to return to normalcy, she recovers and finds the words with which to describe her horrifying experience. Continue reading

Caregiver on a Hero’s Journey – a model for your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

Martha Stettinius’ life shifted rapidly from the ordinary challenges of raising a family to the extraordinary and disturbing responsibility of caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. Martha scrambled to adapt, reaching outward to the mental healthcare community and inward toward deeper understanding. Thanks to the changes taking place in the literary landscape of the twenty-first century, Stettinius also took advantage of an ancient method to help her maintain her courage. The method, handed down in an unbroken chain since the dawn of civilization, is called Story.

I first learned about the importance of stories from a series of televised interviews that journalist Bill Moyers conducted with scholar Joseph Campbell. According to Campbell, every society in history has relied on a type of story he called the Hero’s Journey. When I first heard these ideas, they seemed quaint and archaic. The examples I knew, such as the Greek gods on Mount Olympus and the wolves and witches of Grimm’s Fairy Tales seemed out of step with modern life. I assumed Campbell’s observations had nothing to do with me.

However, when I began reading and analyzing memoirs, I discovered that Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey sheds light on the story structure used by contemporary memoir writers. Even though the details change from person to person and era to era, their underlying structure remains the same. The Hero’s Journey throughout human history has allowed us to discover that when facing difficult situations, we can rise to our higher selves.

Take for example the courageous work of Martha Stettinius, who had to care for her mother. In the following synopsis I show how her experience as a caregiver, as described in Inside the Dementia Epidemic, mirrors the Hero’s Journey. By discovering the structure within her memoir, you might get some good ideas about  to turn your own heroic struggles into a story.

Caregiving for Her Mother as a Hero’s Journey
Stettinius’ journey  starts in the familiar world of her home, taking care of her family, going to work, and getting through each day. Life goes on normally until her mother’s neighbors call with bad news. When her mother’s mental health deteriorates far enough, Stettinius is booted out of her normal life and in the terminology of the Hero’s Journey model, she is “called to adventure.”

A dementia ward is a radical departure from every day life. She has to challenge herself to enter their world. What do you say these people? How do you love them? Who are these caregivers and how can you participate with them to serve your mother?

The shocking transition from the ordinary world to the world of the adventure is summed up by the famous line in Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy emerges into colorful land of Oz, and looks around at dancing munchkins, the good witch says, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

To fit into this new land, Stettinius has to slow the pace of her own mind. By listening to the silences between words and tuning into her mother’s body language, she seeks a new basis for communication. She searches for the best people and institutions, learning how each one works, and striving to find ones that can help the most. Throughout the long middle, she overcomes discomfort and fears, and works diligently to partner with the staff who take care of her mother.

As a result of her heroic response, she grows more knowledgeable and confident, developing into a deeper, more mature version of herself.  By the end of the journey she has also grown closer to her mother. The story that began with pride of independence when the two women were apart ends in the pride of inter-dependence now that they have come together.

Telling the story is a heroic journey, too
After the story of Stettinus caring for her mother ends, another chapter begins. To become important to others, the story must be told. So Stettinius switches roles from the adventurer inside the story to the writer-hero sitting at her keyboard. By striving to tell her story in compelling scenes, she lets us release our grip on our own reality and enter hers.

Her instinct to share her wisdom fits perfectly with Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey. According to him, after the hero finishes the adventure, he or she returns home to offer lessons. In Native American stories, at the end of the adventure the hero returns with some magic ellixir or ritual that will help the tribe. In Lord of the Rings, the whole purpose of Frodo’s mission is to save the world from annihilation.

However, not all heroes return home to deliver wisdom. Ever since I read Homer’s Odyssey in high school, I wondered why the Greeks held Ulysses in such high regard. He was often self-serving and impulsive and when he finally arrived home, his own townspeople turned against him. What was I supposed to learn?

Now that I’m studying memoirs, I realize that there were two journeys represented in the Odyssey, and the second one was at least as important as the first. After Ulysses returned home, the next Hero’s Journey was traveled by Homer. Thanks to tireless composition, and then a lifetime of promotion, Homer turned the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters and a houseful of predatory suitors into cautionary tales, appreciated by readers for thousands of years.

Memoirs blur the lines between these two principle players. In memoirs, the protagonist-hero goes on adventures not to slay monsters, but rather to slay inner demons. Despite our falls and failings we strive to climb the mountains of dignity and mutual respect.  After we return from our adventures and think about what we have been through, we shift roles from adventurer to bard.

By telling the story, Homer transformed a life of suffering and adventure into shared wisdom. Martha Stettinius did the same thing when she chose to write Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Her willingness to share this story with others reflects this underlying desire of human nature. After our years of experience, we are drawn to find the story.

I can see Martha Stettinius’ heroism in both roles. As the protagonist she had to go forth and take care of her mother. Then as the storywriter, she had to endure the discomfort, expense and hard work of sharing her wisdom with her readers.

When memoir writers share experience with readers, everyone wins. The author gains wisdom by turning apparently haphazard events into a meaningful story. And readers take advantage of that work. Through the hypnotic experience of reading a good story, readers enter into the author’s world. Then they take away the gift, the magic elixir. Memoir readers apply the courage and lessons of the Hero’s Journey to their own lives and build up their own reservoir of hope.

Notes

Martha Stettinius’ home page

Inside the Dementia Epidemic on Amazon

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Hero’s Journey as a Model for a Memoir, Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

Buy Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

Each memoir is the product of the author’s diligent, creative attempt to turn life into story so after I read each one, I want to learn lessons not only from the author’s life, but also from their craft. And so, when I read a story like Freeways to Flipflops, I delve into the wisdom of Sonia Marsh’s life experience, not as a collection of various interesting facts, but through the structure of her Story.

In the previous post, I explained how the mythological structure of the  Hero’s Journey helps me understand Sonia Marsh’s memoir. In this post, I’ll explain how you can learn more about that structure, where you can find more examples, and how you can apply it to your own memoir.

When I first learned about Joseph Campbell’s observation that humans have been telling stories of hero’s journeys since the beginning of time, it was like learning about a key that would unlock the meaning of life. However, his ideas were abstract, and I felt unsure about how to apply them.

The system became much clearer when I read Christopher Vogler’s excellent book for writing screenplays, The Writer’s Journey. Picking apart the steps in Vogler’s how-to book gave me the idea to try to apply this mythical journey to the way people live their lives. I soon noticed that the genre of memoirs often contains this simple, powerful story template. All sorts of memoirs involve leaving the familiar world, entering a strange one, and then returning.

The model became personal when I began to visualize my own transition from childhood to adulthood. The simplicity of my nerdy childhood, obsessed with my studies during the week and working in my dad’s drugstore every weekend was like the Hero’s Ordinary World. The rules of that world were blown to oblivion when I entered the campus of the University of Wisconsin in 1965. Like stepping on a landmine, I now needed to make sense of the counter-culture, marijuana, anti-war riots, new sexual mores, the draft, and all the while attempting to prepare myself for a career.

I have never been able to make sense of those chaotic times until I began to look back on them and cast them as a Hero’s Journey. Thanks to Joseph Campbell, Chris Vogler, and the millions of storytellers who have contributed to our civilization, this fundamental structure showed me how to shape the strange process of growing up into a story that makes its own sort of sense.

My breakthrough was not just about me. I began to see the universal process of Coming of Age as a journey from childhood innocence to adult competence. When we leave the ordinary world of our childhood homes, we are like heroes going out into the land of adventure.  Where does the story end? Returning home at the end of the story might mean returning physically to our childhood neighborhood, or it could be more symbolic. When we start our own families, we are symbolically returning to the family unit.

Here are more examples to show how the model can be applied, not as a simple formula, but as a basic structure that can be applied with infinite variation. Each author organizes their own circumstances into a story that makes sense to them, and just as important, a story they hope will make sense to others.

When John Robison was little he loved to watch trains. At the end of his memoir Look Me in the Eye about growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, he took his son to watch trains.

In My Stroke of Insight, when Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist suffered a stroke, it forced her out of normal life into the land of the Adventure, where she had to learn new rules. One of the twists of homecoming occurs early in the book when the author returns home to be cared for by her mother. Later, after she gains new insights into life and the brain, she returns to her community to popularize a deeper understanding of the brain, using her own life as an example.

Travel memoirs make it easy to identify a journey. Lisa Fineberg-Cook was a party girl in Los Angeles, enjoying her hair salons, dates, and nights out with the girls. As a newly-wed, she flies to a town in Japan to become a school teacher. Her memoir Japan Took the JAP Out of Me deliciously contrasts with Freeways to Flipflops, because when Sonia Marsh flees Los Angeles she goes to a place that is wilder and poorer. When Lisa Fineberg-Cook and her husband flee Los Angeles, they go to a more traditional society with formal manners and exquisite etiquette. Each place has new unfamiliar rules but in opposite ways, demonstrating the resilience and variety of the Hero’s Journey. Japan Took the JAP Out of Me ends when Fineberg-Cook visits Los Angeles and goes to the hair salon with her girl friend, realizing that she now must see the old world through new eyes.

Another book with an obvious journey is Doreen Orion’s Queen of the Road. She and her husband cope with midlife crisis by taking a yearlong trip through the U.S. in a motor home. Orion’s character arc occurs toward the end of the book when she goes shopping and realizes that she has nowhere to put her new shoes. So she returns them, accepting the new reality that she can be a whole person without having a walk-in closet full of footwear.

Many stories use the hero’s geographical movement in a far more complex way. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes contains a tricky example of the hero’s return. He was born in New York City, so his adventure begins when the family “goes forth” to Ireland where he does most of his growing up. At the end of Angela’s Ashes, he returns to New York, a peculiar anti-heroic ending of the book. I wonder if there was something about that homecoming to America that called out to millions of readers.

In the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi grows up in Iran. As the child of a privileged family, she goes to the U.S. for an education. Then she returns to Iran to teach English literature. That should have been the ending, and in an uncomplicated world she would have lived happily ever after. Tragically, the increasing militancy of the Iranian Revolution turns her familiar world into the world of the adventure. Under the bizarre misogynist rules of militant Islamism, she feels like a stranger in her own home. In a sad twist of exile, she must “return” to the United States, not because it’s where she was born, but because it’s where she can find peace and sanity.

My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley offers an intriguing variation of homecoming. She starts her journey by leaving her adopted home in San Francisco, returning to her childhood home in Kansas to try to understand her own childhood roots.

Even grief can be interpreted as a Hero’s Journey. In Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup, her husband dies suddenly, sending the young mother careening out of the familiar world of marriage into the grief-stricken world widowhood. She must reconstruct her life, attempting to “return” to normal.

Writing Prompt: Consider your own Hero’s Journey

When you look across the landscape of your own life experience, try to identify dramatic tension that can harness this ancient system of storytelling. Identify some broad sweeping changes. For example

We were all born, and had to undergo the transition known as Coming of Age, during which we pieced together the rules of life. During your Coming of Age, what particular challenges and adventures did you face? When you reached some sort of “destination,” a life you were willing to live, describe how that might have felt like a conclusion to your quest.

At the next stage of the life journey, typically around our early 20s, we transition from the unformed stage of early adulthood into the solid responsibility of family and home. What was this period like for you? Was it brief and predictable? Or was this transition difficult and even chaotic. What adventures or special challenges did you face during this important second stage of Coming of Age? What defined the “end” of the journey? Was it a career or family? What lesson or growth in your character will let the reader know the period has ended?

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)
Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Memoir as a Hero’s Journey: Character Arc and Homecoming

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

In the beginning of the memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh portrays a middle-class life in southern California. On the surface, this family seems ordinary and comfortable. But underneath the glossy exterior, trouble is brewing. Her teenage son is veering out of control, introducing a corrosive force that threatens to destroy their stability.

These problems force Marsh to consider making a huge change, but she isn’t sure what. One day a visiting plumber asks, “Have you thought about moving to Belize?” The question grows into a possibility, and then into a plan.

In the parlance of the Hero’s Journey, the plumber is a messenger, and the family answers the Call to Adventure. They leave the Ordinary World and move to Central America where they enter the World of the Adventure.

In this foreign land, the family encounters discomfort, inconvenience, edgy neighbors, and money problems. They valiantly press forward, finding schools for the kids and trying to make friends. But as fast as they solve one problem, new ones arise. Enemies turn against them, backstabbing and shunning them, and finally sabotaging their boat. This world grows increasingly dangerous and harsh. In the end, they can’t stomach the adventure anymore and retreat home to Los Angeles.

Heroes often return home at the end of the story. Ulysses famously returns to his home in Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War, and Dorothy returns home at the end of Wizard of Oz. The return home at the end of an adventure is so important there’s a Greek name for it: Nostoi. With the hero back home, the reader can close the book, satisfied that the story has reached closure. “Ah. Loose ends are tied up. The adventure made sense. I can return to my life.”

The fact that the Hero returns to the same geographic location highlights the fact that the most important transformation takes place in the Hero’s character. Before Dorothy is permitted to leave the Land of Oz, she must assertively confront the wizard. Once she finds her own courage, the door opens and she can return. The development of the character from the beginning of the story to the end is called Character Arc, and it expresses our culture’s deep faith in the possibility that we can grow over time.

Freeways to Flipflops provides a perfect example of this inner development. Externally, Sonia’s family needs to figure out where to find the boat that will take them shopping, where to buy cool birthday presents for the kids, and how to make money. Internally, they are trying to grow emotionally, and reclaim their emotional health. As they struggle through the outer events of their adventure, they are forced to view the world in new ways. Resolving their outer hardship forces them to solve their psychological challenges.

Adapting to this harsh environment has the same effect on the family as a wilderness drug rehab has on addicts. Marsh’s son realizes his parents and siblings are allies, and he rallies around the needs of the clan. In doing so, he learns that the entire world does not revolve around his desires. By the end of the book, he reorients his priorities in a more compassionate, socially responsible way. Dad’s character also develops through the course of the journey. Separation from the corporate grind helps him break out of his career stalemate. And even though Mom started this mission in order to help her family, by the end, she has grown too. No longer limited to acting inside the home, she has become an entrepreneur. And as a bonus, Sonia’s family experienced life outside the boundaries of the United States, an international perspective she had hoped to share with them.

The homecoming at the end of Freeways to Flipflops contains an important twist that adds energy and mystery to the story. If the only goal of the family’s move had been to stay in Belize, the whole adventure would have been a flop*. But settling into permanent life in Belize was only one of the family’s goals. A much more urgent goal was to resolve their family problems, and get their son back on track. From that point of view, they succeeded. Like Dorothy who was allowed to return home after she found the courage to confront the wizard, Sonia Marsh’s family was permitted to return home after the family achieved a new degree of maturity.

In the end of the classic Hero’s Journey, the hero brings back insights and wisdom to the community. Sonia Marsh’s memoir has achieved this heroic goal. By telling us her story about life in the Land of the Adventure, she lets us experience and learn from her lessons without leaving our chairs. And the greatest lesson Sonia Marsh offers aspiring memoir writers…? Messy experiences can be translated into tight, integrated, well constructed stories.

*The paradoxical nature of the family’s journey, turning defeat into victory, literally “flipped the flop,” offering a sneaky double-entendre of the title. Aren’t words amazing?

In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll offer examples of the Hero’s Journey model peeking through the seams of memoirs.

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

Memoir Author Finds Drama in Everyday Life

By Jerry Waxler

In this last part of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook, author of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” I ask her more questions about her writing process and her decisions about the way she put her memoir together.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Jerry Waxler: Many writers wonder how to find dramatic tension within their ordinary lives. I think your scene about being disappointed by not having sheets on your bed makes a great example. I think most of us have had moments when creature comforts fail to meet our expectations and we sink into an emotional stew. So maybe it’s not a JAP problem but a human problem. From that point of view, your scene of being disappointed about a sheetless bed makes a statement about how people handle unexpected loss of comfort. When writing your memoir, what did you think about this creative project of turning ordinary experiences into compelling story elements?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: It’s the little things that we can all relate to.  For me, to walk into my new home — first ever as a married woman — at ten o’clock at night in an entirely different part of the world and not have sheets on a bed when I was so tired that all I wanted to do was fall down — seemed like the cruelest form of deprivation I could imagine  (LOL!)  Looking back now thirteen years later, not having sheets on a bed seems pretty insignificant so my threshold for little inconveniences is much higher but at the time it seemed symbolic of the whole experience – I imagined at the time that this must be what the Peace Corp is like! Again, perception is key in all of life’s experiences and at the time it seemed  huge to be deprived in that way.

In other anecdotes too, it’s the little things, like when I was in downtown Nagoya and found the store that sells American products, I was so happy I cried — Kraft Macaroni and Cheese woo hoo!

Jerry Waxler: You structured the book, along lines of domestic responsibilities. Because of my preference for chronological story telling, I would have expected this organization to disrupt the story, but it didn’t. In fact, it pulled me along, consistently guiding me through your experience. What sort of training or experience went into developing your knack for writing in a story flow so naturally that even when you messed around with the organization, it still felt like a good story?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I wrote the laundry section in my head and when it came time to put it on paper, I liked the idea of organizing the sections into domestic chores. However, I felt that I wanted to chronicle the first of the two years as it was the more significant of the two, so even though it’s sectioned into domestic topics, it does follow the year and doesn’t jump around.  This happened organically by the way, I didn’t necessarily plan it but it evolved in a way that made too much sense to ignore.

Jerry Waxler: The title emphasizes two aspects of your journey, the trip to Japan and your loss of princess status. In addition, the book is also about the transition from single and spoiled to married and responsible. Memoir writers, especially with commercial ambitions, are supposed to stick with one particular theme. What sort of angst or decisions went into incorporating the multiple facets into the container of one story?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had no angst whatsoever (is that bad to admit? LOL!) Truthfully, I felt like the theme was all about perception and expectation.  Wherever someone grows up, there are societal expectations and perceptions about how to behave, how to mold yourself, how to succeed, choices you make, creature comforts, etc..  When a woman gets married, there again are the expectations and perceptions about how to behave, what it means to be a wife.  Then when you combine the change of single to married and take a person out of their comfort zone — entirely mind you — and put them in a place that also has very strict, structured societal expectations and perceptions (very different from your own) — it is yet another way of having to figure out how to make sense of it all and how to make it work for you as opposed to against you.  None of it was easy and what’s true is that if I had decided to write the book immediately after returning to the States, it would NOT have been a humorous book, it would have been a much more serious, angst-filled memoir because Japan was incredibly challenging for me, very painful and an enormous growth experience. But again, with time and perspective, humor wins out and I feel like the humor is a way of saying ‘I’m over it. I win.  Japan 0, Lisa 1.’

Jerry Waxler: When I grew up in the fifties and sixties, being Jewish was not particularly hip. In fact, as far as I remember, most Jews tried to hide their religion. It’s interesting that you are putting Jewishness in the name of your book, and also interesting that the contents of the book has almost nothing to do with the religion. You use JAP as a sort of stand-in for culturally privileged, entitled young woman. So is JAP now a word that can apply to any girl of any religion who feels entitled to a world of comfort and privilege, or were you really trying to say something in particular about being Jewish?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I think there’s definitely a stigma attached to Jewishness, or if not a stigma then a stereotype about what a Jewish man or woman looks like, acts like, sounds like and while I do believe stereotypes have elements of truth running through them, it is obviously not an exclusive and accurate portrait of anyone. I love being a Jewish woman and most of my women friends who are Jewish are beautiful, smart, successful and very funny. In regards to the use of the word JAP, it’s interesting because I have so many girlfriends (both Jewish and not) who commented after reading the book ‘wow, I’m more of a JAP than I thought.’ (Almost all of them said ‘Lisa there is no way I could have stayed past the first laundry experience. I would have come straight home.’) And in truth, the term is more about a particular attitude towards lifestyle and behavior than being a Jewish woman — again I think a ‘JAP’ mentality has to do with expectations, particularly when it comes to dealing with service based industry; how they will be treated, dealt with, immediately attended to, provided with excellent service – that sort of thing.  I definitely do not think this is an exclusively Jewish characteristic, however, I do know some Jewish women who would be considered the Olympians of JAP-ness.

Jerry Waxler: Thank you for your time. I think you have a great knack for communicating and look forward to reading more of your work. What else of yours can I read and what are you working on next.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: This is my first published work and I am currently working on two projects – one is the sequel to JAP which is titled LumberJAP about the three years we spent in rural Maine post-Japan and a novel titled Greedy Bitches which is a dark comedy.

Click here to read part one of my interview with Lisa Fineberg Cook.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

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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.

Endings of Memoirs: She Returns Home

by Jerry Waxler

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s memoir, “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” is about the first year of her two year trip to Japan and, like many successful books, the structure fits nicely into the model of the Hero’s Journey. In the Hero’s Journey, the universal myth made famous by Joseph Campbell, an ordinary person departs from their familiar setting, and enters the world of the adventure, which is governed by strange rules. The hero learns how to navigate within the new rules, overcomes obstacles and then returns home, armed with deeper wisdom.

(This is the third of a three part review. To see the first part, click here.)

I have become accustomed to discovering this structure at the heart of many stories that I like, so I was not surprised to see it peeking out through the pages of  “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” The author travels from her familiar world of Los Angeles to the land of the adventure, Japan, where she must learn new rules. Inside herself, she overcomes the character flaws of being a spoiled teenager, and gradually becomes an adult. Like every Hero’s Journey, the conclusion of “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me” affirms the importance of challenging yourself in order to achieve deeper meaning.

Some of the iconic stories of our time have followed a similar pattern. “The Wizard of Oz” offers a perfect example. Dorothy leaves her home in Kansas and enters the land of Oz. Like Lisa Cook leaving Los Angeles, Dorothy is actually on two simultaneous journeys. On the outside, she must solve the puzzles of Oz. Inside herself, Dorothy wrestles with her immaturity to discover her strengths. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey loses his grip on ordinary life, and out in the cold cruel world he must reclaim his sense of purpose. In the memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup travels a similar road. She doesn’t lose money, the way George Bailey does. She loses her husband in a car accident. To earn a living and also look for meaning, she becomes a law enforcement chaplain and learns to steer through a world of legal violations and the cruelty of death.

Stories that make me feel wonderful often end with a celebration of family and community. Dorothy returns to Kansas armed with the wisdom to appreciate her parents’ love, and the assertiveness to fend off her bullying neighbor. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey discovers his importance in the community. In her memoir “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup discovers that the antidote to evil and despair is the support of the community.

A Nuanced Ending Links Friendship and Maturity

When Lisa Fineberg Cook returns to Los Angeles at the end of the year, she meets her old friend Stacy. They go shopping and talk about their usual topics. As Lisa puts it, “When it comes to handbags and swimming pools, Stacey always comes first.” After her year of learning to cope in Japan, I was afraid that Lisa was backsliding. Did she forget everything she learned? She seems to ask herself the same question. But then, Lisa offers Stacey some advice and it appears that Lisa really has grown. Her interaction with her old girlfriend provides a foil that lets us see what she might have been like if she had stayed in Los Angeles.  After a year away, Lisa’s world has expanded. Based on her well-earned maturity, our hero reaches back to her friend not in a needy way, but in a supportive one.

As the memoir finishes, I feel confident that the wisdom she found during her journey will help her relate more maturely to her husband, her students, and her friend. That’s a perfect example for the inner and outer trajectory of an excellent memoir.

Structural Bonus: One year, one trip

“Japan Took the JAP out of Me” offers another interesting insight for aspiring memoir writers. Even though she went to Japan on a two year contract, the memoir covers one year of that trip. The one-year cycle turns out to be an excellent mental model which helps readers visualize the beginning middle and end.

Writing Prompt
Experiment with different time frames for your own memoir. What period might help your reader form a better mental image of your journey?

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Notes
Here are a few examples of memoirs that wrap their story in a well-defined period of time, or a trip, or both:

Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion
She travels around the U.S. in an attempt to combat mid-life crisis, and then returns home, wiser. Click here to see my series about “Queen of the Road” here.

Accidental Lessons by David Berner
His career as a radio broadcaster ends around the same time as his marriage. To reconstruct his life along more meaningful lines, he becomes a school teacher in a lower income community. At 50 years-old, he is the oldest and the newest teacher. The story takes place during one school year. Click here to see my series about Accidental Lessons.
link

Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald
To escape a stalker in Australia, Sarah McDonald follows her fiancé to India, where she becomes a religious tourist for one year.

Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
This memoir is about a motorcycle trip that follows the same route as Robert Pirsig wrote about in the classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Richardson returns to the road, reminiscing about Pirsig, and as the miles roll by under his wheels, he has plenty of time to muse about his own life, as well. Click here to read my essay about Zen and Now.
Link

My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley
She returns to Kansas to try to make sense of her roots. The memoir loosely follows that journey. Click here to read my essay about Ruby Slippers.

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.

Myths Suggest a Universal Template for Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

To share our life story, we first explore our interior landscape, searching for information that will make sense to ourselves. But when we try to explain our past to readers, it must do better than simply make sense. It must be interesting. So writers go on another quest, looking for techniques that will help them tell a good story. But not all of us know how to do that. Take me for example. Despite years of consuming stories, I didn’t know the first thing about creating one.

My first foray into the nature of storytelling came from a weighty book called simply “Story” by Robert McKee. McKee, a writing teacher, explained the steps needed to create a screenplay. His matter-of-fact approach gave me hope that I could learn enough about the structure to perhaps someday create my own.

My next burst of understanding came from Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces.” Campbell’s explanation was based on a lifetime of studying world mythology. From his complex research he drew elegant conclusions about the importance of storytelling for human society.

I also attended workshops which taught me the various components of stories, such as characters, dialog, and plot. In one workshop, Jack Lule, a professor at nearby Lehigh University, shared his insights into the way mythology can help explain why some news stories resonate with public interest and some fall flat. He wrote about this topic in his book  “Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism.”  See my article on Jack Lule’s talk about myths and news.

All these parts of the storytelling puzzle fascinated me but I couldn’t figure out how to put them all together. Then I hit paydirt. The book “Writer’s Journey” by Chris Vogler explained how storytellers and mythmakers have been following a template since the beginning of recorded history. From the basic system outlined by Chris Vogler, I saw the parts of stories more clearly and began to form ideas about how I could apply these principles to my own life.

At first I was surprised by the simplicity of his ideas, but over time grew to see them as an inevitable connection of all humans throughout civilization. From that point of view, it made perfect sense that mythology is loaded with universal story telling devices. For example, here are some of the techniques that could be applied to memoir writing.

Mentors, Trainers and Training
Weapons, Weapon Masters
Talismans
Potions
Shape shifting
Chosen Clan, Allies
Coming Home or Nostoi

Some of these mythmaking devices look fanciful, completely disconnected from real life. And yet, with a little imagination, you can see how these techniques might highlight subtle aspects of your own story. To illustrate how this works, I will point out echoes of these mythological structures, suggested by Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open,” and then offer suggestions about how you can use them yourself.

In following posts, I will focus on each of these topics, give examples, and offer writing prompts for your own memoir in progress.

Note

This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

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.