by Jerry Waxler
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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?
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