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)


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How does John Robison end his memoir of lifelong learning?

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

The first chapter of John Robison’s memoir “Look me in the eye” was called “Little Misfit,” because Robison didn’t know how to get along with other kids, and he never seemed to do anything right. That might have set the stage for a Coming of Age story, but by the time he was 16, he had many more questions than he had answers. He left home and set off on a journey to figure it all out. His self-discovery took him the rest of his life. And I believe that’s why I love this book so much. The book does turn out to be a Coming of Age story — one that never ends.

The first time I heard a 65 year old woman say, “I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to be when I grow up” I laughed. And I also agreed with her sentiment. Decades trickle by, families grow up, jobs come and go, but exactly which morning are we supposed to wake up and say, “Oh. That’s what it was all about.” The only way I’ve found to tie it all together is to find the story. And that’s what Robison did. He lived, he learned, he grew, and then he wrote about it. Now I want to understand how he did it so I can do it too.

The long middle
Most people who consider writing a memoir wonder if our years in the office or taking kids to soccer have turned us into drones, and so we utter the familiar cry, “Who would want to read about me?” We can go a long way towards answering that question when we review events and look under the surface. The passions and desires unfolded day by day, too slowly to make sense of at the time. Gradually, those days accumulated into our unique story, and now in retrospect we can find their significance.

To learn how you might tell your own long periods, consider the way John Robison showed his years in an office as a technology worker. Rather than excruciating detail, he highlighted key points. He described a few pranks in keeping with his passion for practical joking. He felt good about some of his contributions to the company, and felt bad about the corporate mentality and the lack of appreciation for individual initiative. He showed what he went through in snapshots, giving us the picture without boring us. His scan across those years, provides the insight you can see when you look back across your own journey. The middle years were steps on a longer road.

I always wondered why the Israelis had to cross the desert for 40 years. Now that I’m studying stories, I realize those long years represent a sort of “baking period” in the middle of life during which the inner self continues to grow. John Robison didn’t shy away from the fact that he worked in an office. And by looking at those jobs through the longer lens of a memoir, he revealed their secret. They were steps on a longer road. By including these periods, “Look Me in the Eye” offers a role model for all us who seek to understand how to transform memories into a story.

Robison’s persistent desire to grow creates a potential problem. Every good story ends with relief of dramatic tension. Through the book, we readers have been growing with him, step by step. How do we know when we’ve reached the goal? Robison signals the conclusion of his journey by using an ancient storytelling technique. When Robison grows older, he moves back to the town where he started.

Moving back to the suburbs doesn’t sound like much of a story element, but it turns out the simple idea of returning home has enormous power in storytelling circles. It even has a Greek name, “nostoi.” (I love it when I know a Greek name for a concept.) Once you start to look for it, you will discover this simple device everywhere. Ulysses returns to his home at the end of Homer’s Odyssey. The Hobbits return home at the end of Lord of the Rings. Homecoming can be symbolic as well. For example, in Barack Obama’s “Dreams of Our Father,” Obama returns to the home of his African father, a sort of ancestral returning.

Robison started in life unable to connect with other children, but easily being able to turn within his own mind. The adults around him had no clue what was going on, and he was frequently shamed for his differences. Had he stayed home, and accepted the shaming comments he might have turned out to be the failure everyone expected him to be. When John Robison went on his journey of self-discovery, he wasn’t setting out to be a hero. He simply wanted to learn how to live well.

When Robison set out into the world, one of his first jobs was working as a special effects engineer for the famous rock and roll band, KISS. His own differences gave him the opportunity to see a different slice of life. Through the course of his years, he was learning about himself, and how to make the best use of his talents and personality.

Towards the end of “Look Me in the Eye,” Robison shifted his attention to raising his youngest son who had inherited some quirky Aspergian tendencies, such as fascination with machinery. So dad took his boy to the train yard to watch the big locomotives. It was a lovely scene, with a powerful storytelling twist. This little boy faced similar issues to the ones Robison faced, but this second time around, the child was neither lonely nor a “misfit.” By this time, Robison knew enough about his condition to help his son cope with it. Robison started his memoir in his own childhood, and ended raising his own children, a dramatic circle I found extremely satisfying.

Return from Hero’s Journey Armed with Wisdom
In fact, Robison story continues past the end of the memoir. He now gives talks to help parents cope and guide nerdy, withdrawn, Asperger’s spectrum children. He also speaks to children, helping them understand each other and themselves. Robison’s story emulates the classic Hero’s Journey. When the Hero Returns, his or her experiences can be used to serve the community. That turns John Robison’s memoir not into the finish line of his lifetime, but simply the end of a chapter. The next page begins with a life of involvement and service.

Writing Prompt
To decide where you want to begin the journey of your memoir, consider what sort of place and situation you were in when you started. Look at your hometown, your religion of origin, your initial dreams. Then as you come to the end of your story, see where you can “return” either physically to the same location, or symbolically to your roots.


The Hero’s Journey provides fascinating material for any writer. To learn more about how to apply these ideas to your story, read Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers.”

In my book, “Four Elements for Writers” I explore the way you can turn this myth towards your own writing behavior, and use it to develop tenacity and courage. [link]

Another book that uses exquisite understanding of storytelling principles is Sound of No Hands Clapping. (Click here to see my review.) This explores a powerful use of the “character arc” in memoir. The author, self-conscious as ever, teaches a lesson about storytelling embedded in his memoir, repeating ideas he heard in a workshop from famous storytelling teacher Robert McKee.

To learn more about Robison’s work with Asperger’s Syndrome, or to see how he is doing, check out his blog, For more information about the Asperger’s condition, he recommends the website,

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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