Self-concept and memoirs: The power of purpose

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

This is the fourth article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to deepen your understanding of your own self-concept. To start from the beginning, click here. Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity,

In his memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychologist Viktor Frankl observed that a person who lacks purpose is susceptible to a variety of ills. According to Frankl’s theory, we live to the fullest only when we pursue a goal greater than ourselves. Abraham Maslow offers a slightly different slant on the issue of desire. His famous Hierarchy of Needs describes how our sense of purpose evolves from the most basic physical requirements for food and shelter, up through safety, pride, and recognition. At the very top of the hierarchy are transcendent goals like creativity, spirituality and service.

In many memoirs, and certainly the ones I enjoy the most, these energizing psychological principles leap off the pages. In the beginning of each memoir, the protagonist burns with some sort of desire, and then through the course of events, the character matures and begins to develop a deeper understanding of purpose.

To make your memoir as compelling as possible, search for your central mission. What drove you from day to day? When you find it, you will be giving yourself as well as your readers a gift. The wind in your sails that has propelled you through the years, also propels your reader through the pages.

Viktor Frankl, “Man’s search for meaning.” Frankl keeps himself alive during internment in Nazi death camps by helping fellow prisoners. He also dreams of someday helping people in the world. For the rest of his life, he follows this dream, promoting his system of Logotherapy, based on the notion that finding your true purpose is the antidote to modern ills.

Davis, Jenkins, and Hunt, “The Pact.” Three boys in northern New Jersey band together to overcome the influences of their tough urban environment. They help each other become doctors. Then they return to their community to inspire other struggling young men to follow the same path.

Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea.” As a young man interested only in climbing mountains, Mortenson finds his true calling when he stumbles into a village where poor people save his life and offer him a place in their homes. He vows to build a school for their children, and his work evolves into an international charity that builds schools for poor children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Purpose interrupted

In any good story, as in any full-featured life, there are ups and downs. When our sense of purpose stalls or derails, it can feel not only like the death of a dream, but like a small death of the self. How do we get back into the game of life when our best effort failed? The story of resurrecting self after such setbacks reveals the courage and resilience of the human spirit. Many of the memoirs on my bookshelf tell about such complex journeys. These examples may help you discover how purpose played out in your own story.

Dani Shapiro, “Slow Motion.” This author entered a prestigious college, a powerful first step that would set the stage for her life as a writer. Then she hit a snag. A seducer showered her with flattery, gifts, and drugs, and she almost lost everything. The climb back to purpose shows her resilience. In fact, in a sense, it was this call to higher purpose that pulled her out of the abyss.

Janice Erlbaum, “Have you found her?” The author was homeless as a young girl. As an adult she returned to a shelter to help homeless kids. When her good intentions missed their mark, she shows her vulnerability and also gives us the chance to learn about human nature along with her. Her experience makes me wonder about the profound suffering possible in life, the desire to help, the limits of that help, and the degree to which you have to grow wiser yourself in order to heal others.

David Berner, “Accidental Lessons.” The author was a successful radio newscaster who, in mid-life, realized his career had only satisfied him externally. Internally he was drying up. Berner found deeper meaning by spending a year teaching in an inner city school. His memoir offers an example of discovering a deeper calling the second time around.

How did I find my purpose?

Like Dani Shapiro, my life presents an example, of a failure to launch. When my original goal of becoming a doctor fell apart, I fell into a spiritual void. With no reason to do anything, I lost interest in turning the pages of my own life. Stumbling in the dark, I came upon a belief system that prevented my spiritual demise, and I gradually built myself back to mental health. And like David Berner, in my fifties I began searching for a career that would allow me more opportunities to work with people. Eventually I found my calling to people find their story. This mission is providing me more enthusiasm about life than I experienced since I was a teen.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene which shows what you longed for. Did  you find fulfillment at your paid job, or a volunteer job, a hobby, or with your family, or community service. Look for places when your life connected with a larger social purpose.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

Recovering self-concept after trauma

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays 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.

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

Stephen Markley Interview Part 3: Satire, Truth, and Risk

by Jerry Waxler

When you publish a memoir, you expose yourself to a variety of risks. In addition to the obvious one that not everyone will like your work, there are others, such as mistakes of memory, exposing vulnerable areas of self, and annoying relatives. If you want courage to balance on the high wire of your own memoir, look for inspiration from those who have gone before you. Take for example, Stephen Markley, author of  “Publish This Book.” He is a risk taker of the highest order. In this part of my multi-part interview, I ask about his willingness to take risks in his writing.

Jerry Waxler: There have been a few huge media dustups about memoirs that were demonstrated to have introduced major factual errors. You discuss this interesting topic when shown were teaching a classroom full of young, under-educated children. It’s a powerful scene, and the kids offer some of the cleverest commentary on false memoirs I have seen anywhere, but the whole time I was reading it, I thought my head was going to explode, like that robot in the original Star Trek series who short-circuited after the humans presented it with a paradox.

“These kids couldn’t possibly have said such complex things. You were faking the whole situation. Your memoir scene about false memoirs was false. Wait a minute. This book that I’m holding, ‘Publish this Book’ is supposed to be a memoir, meaning it’s supposed to be true. And you have a fictional scene in it about kids discussing false memoirs. Wouldn’t that make you one of those memoir falsifiers?”

I couldn’t tell whether to be pissed off or ecstatic over this mind-burn. Yes, I know that’s part of the joke, but it’s so complex, who in the world is going to get it? (Oh, wait a minute. I guess I did.) What do you have to say for yourself?

Stephen Markley: I honestly don’t see what there is to be mad about. I feel like the chapter’s intentions become clear at the outset when I’m describing my ex-Soviet bloc, John Birch-loving drug dealer. I’m daydreaming on the page about how I could possibly fake my own memoir and win the glory all writers know they desire. The point of the chapter is that “Publish This Book” is about a painfully dull guy told in an engaging way, and that, as I said earlier, anyone’s story has these moments. For instance, I’m sure James Frey may well have had a harrowing experience as an alcoholic, but instead of describing that, he made up this “willfully contrived” story that makes him out to be this James Dean-badass crack addict (I’m always baffled by people who defend “A Million Little Pieces” as “still pretty good” even though it essentially reads like a season of “24” only less believable).

The invented parts of that chapter are nothing more than a fun device, a way of discussing the serious and troubling implications of memoir fabulism without dropping a dull essay into the middle of the book.

I would like to somehow take a poll of the book’s readers to see how many of them actually got it (glad that you did). I’ve had many people ask me who the semi-famous actress I was sleeping with was…

Jerry: In fact, the whole book seems loaded with one risk after another. It’s too long. It’s too meta. It’s too political. You have this strange ending with multiple false starts that could be confusing for some readers. And yet it works. I guess that’s one of the hallmarks of humor, that you have to take risks and if someone doesn’t get it they think you are just being stupid.

In Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking,” she reports that in her early days, while she was still trying to make it, she went on Jack Paar’s television show. The audience loved her but Paar didn’t get it. He said “I didn’t believe a word she said” and refused not only to bring her back on the show. He refused to talk to her again. I already know from your book that you have had similar experiences with people confused by your intentions.

I am inspired by the fact that you keep trying to push forward and just focus on those people who do get you. I think all performers could learn a lesson from this sort of courage, to focus on the people who love you and ignore the ones who don’t. What sort of self-awareness do you have about this aspect of your courage to write?

Stephen: This goes to pretty much the heart of any kind of writing, no matter the form. There have been some really harsh reviews of the book, and I admit, when I first read these, my gut sank. But the kind of writing I do–and the kind of writer I want to be–is pretty much predicated on the idea that I am going to swing for the fences more often than not. What some call fearlessness, others will call dreck, and there ain’t a whole lot I can do about that.

To some degree, you have to be responsive to an audience–after all, I’m not just writing for myself. So I do listen to criticism and I do read what the people who despise me say. But on the other hand, I think being even a boring writer takes a pretty thick skin. I know a lot of people who simply haven’t developed the callouses they’ll need to see them through. However, if you want to be an entertaining writer, if you want to take chances pretty much every chapter (and when I was getting critiques from my writing groups, it felt more like every other page), you’ll need that thick skin more than ever.

One of the most personal parts of the book (and some of my friends told me it was one of the most interesting) are the chapters where my professor Steven basically tells me the book is terrible and he’s questioning if I’ve been faking my persona all these years. When all that actually happened, it really sucked, and I was pretty hurt. Then, when it came time to finish the book, I realized I had to put it in because it was so central to the conflict of writing the thing. It would have been so easy to take the coward’s route and leave those chapters out (not to congratulate myself or anything), but by keeping them in and inventing a fun device to jazz up what amounted to an e-mail exchange, I basically offered up one of the most devastating moments of my writing career for everyone to read.

For a long time I thought it might be an epic mistake (especially when I sent the finished manuscript to Steven), but whatever–you only live once, and Heaven sounds boring anyway.


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, 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.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 2: Humor and Politics in his Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

“Publish this Book” by Stephen Markley is funny from the first glance at the cover to the last page. His quirky, irreverent style of humor does not work for everyone, which is evident from the hate mail he regularly receives. But it works for me, making it one of only a handful of books that have ever made me break out into a belly laugh. In this part of my six part interview, I ask Stephen more about being funny, and about including his politics. In a later section of this six part interview, I will ask him to comment on taking so many risks in his writing.


Jerry Waxler: Your writing is really funny. A number of times I found myself laughing out loud, or muffling it so my wife didn’t think I was losing my mind. I only rarely get a belly laugh from a book, but when I do, it is a real treat. I remember years ago cracking up in a waiting room reading John Steinbeck’s affectionate account of his dog in Travels with Charley. And I enjoyed the laughs I got from a Dave Barry book, who you said was at one time one of your literary heroes. But it puzzles me how any writer could learn this skill.

Joan Rivers (“Enter Talking”) and Steve Martin (“Born Standing Up”) had to struggle for years to make people laugh. It’s a daunting goal. But at least a stand up comedian knows whether or not the joke worked. A writer doesn’t have that kind of feedback. Do you remember how you learned to get people to laugh at your writing?

Stephen Markley: Writing funny is hard, for the reasons you just mentioned, but also because people have very different ideas of what they find funny. Believe me, as I’ve tried to write funny over the years, I get diametrically opposed reactions all the time. Someone will write me and say, “That was over the top!” “Not funny.” “You’re so juvenile, get a life.” And then I’ll open the next e-mail and it will be a girl telling me something I wrote caused her to laugh to the point of involuntary urination (I swear I have gotten this on multiple occasions). Therefore, all I can say is that much like a stand-up comedian, it’s been a lifetime of trial and error.

Jerry: Could you share a trick or two to help the rest of us steer towards this valuable skill?

Stephen: Yeah, probably not. All I can say is that over the course of my life, I’ve inadvertently become friends with a lot of people who are way smarter and way funnier than me. Once you’ve surrounded yourself with smart, funny people, you can steal everything they say, do, think, and believe, put it on paper and call it your idea. This is not plagiarism but rather a kind of mental osmosis. You just gather from the best sources, put it through the sausage-maker and out comes a really funny riff about a cussing baby trying to figure out what a human nose is.


Jerry: I thought that including one’s political leaning in a book would be strictly forbidden by the industry who wouldn’t want to piss anyone off. So I was surprised that you were so outspoken about your unabashed favoritism towards Obama. (Was I dreaming or did you actually work Noam Chomsky into a conversation? I think it might even have been a pick up line?)

Stephen: Yes, a girl in a bar tells me she didn’t expect to hear Noam Chomsky quoted in a country song.

Jerry: Did you have to struggle to assert your political position? Did your publisher give you any sort of feedback or pushback about it? What sort of feedback do you get from readers?

Stephen: I never struggle to assert my politics because I think about them constantly and they’re just part of who I am. For instance, I get really pissed off at myself when I use a plastic coffee stirrer because it’s a petrochemical product I’ll use once and then toss out, thus providing financing to petro-dictators and their terrorist affiliates while deepening our energy crisis. I once kept a single plastic stirrer in my desk drawer for seven months to avoid this guilt, but it got gross.

The point is not that I’m insane (although I might be), but that I no more could have written this book without including my politics than I could have written it without including my passion for writing. They’re both just parts of me that belonged. As far as the publisher, yes, I did get pushback at first, but as the book progresses, it’s easy to see why this political vein becomes more important (and plays in heavily to the fortuitous ending). I cut some of the more extreme animosity toward Hillary Clinton because a large chunk of the book was written during that primary when tensions were running high and everyone was a little crazy, but the rest stayed.

Readers tend to love it or hate it depending on their politics obviously. I recently got a letter from this guy in Florida who said he was a conservative Republican but he still loved the book. I asked him why, and he said everything but the politics spoke to him. So I guess it’s not a deal breaker for some people, but even if it is, like I said,I don’t particularly care.


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, 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.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 1: Launching from College to Career

by Jerry Waxler

Stephen Markley, fresh out of college, decided to write a book about “publishing this very book,” a catchy idea which made it all the way from his imagination into my book store. (Read my review of “Publish This Book” here.) In this first part of a six part interview, I talk with Stephen about his transition from college into the working world.

Jerry Waxler: In my teens I read “Catcher in the Rye” and “Lord of the Flies” about the terrors of trying to grow up. In my early twenties I read books like Henry Miller’s “Sexus” about remaining a perpetual adolescent. But I had no literary heroes who actually grew up and became responsible adults. The absence of such role models may have contributed to my ineptitude at becoming an adult myself.

Flash forward 40 years: I am on the other end of adulthood reading your book about the complexities and anxieties of this life transition, joining you on your struggle to become a fully functioning career guy. I wondered if your book could have helped me, or more importantly could actually help a few people now who are struggling out of their college world and into the first leg of adulthood.

Did you read books in which this transition into adulthood helped you visualize where you were heading, or did you notice the same gap I did?

Stephen Markley: I certainly didn’t think of it that way at first, but since the book has come out, I’ve realized there really is a pretty noticeable gap of reading material about this life stage. I’ve since read a pretty awesome book by a guy named Keith Gessen called “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” and I think guys like Dave Eggers and Chuck Klosterman definitely speak to that moment in life, but as far as literary influences for “Publish This Book” I promise I had no overt ones.

Jerry: Were you conscious of this book fitting into that space?

Stephen: At first, not at all. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I began to realize I wasn’t just writing about trying to publish a book but also about this moment in life that it turns out is very, very familiar to people. After reading the first three chapters, a fortysomething guy in my writing group said, “This reminds me so much about my life after college, it’s eerie.” It meant nothing to me at the time, but it turns out that was an important moment in the book’s development.

Jerry: Have you heard from readers who appreciate this empathy for their own struggle to boost themselves across this threshold?

Stephen: Absolutely. The bulk of the e-mails and Facebook communiqués hit on this point first and foremost. People note moments in the book that they recognize from their own experiences: hating their jobs, not finding a job, being broke, struggling to figure out what they want to do, missing college, ending things with a significant other. People love to get these things off of their chests, and I think I just managed to articulate it well enough that it resonates with people living through a certain time and experience.

Jerry: Have you had feedback from readers who recognize the gift you are offering them of a sort of confused flawed role model on the journey towards “real life?”

Stephen: Well, “gift” may be a strong word. As I wrote the book, it wasn’t until I was 100,000 words in that I actually knew it was going to be read by anyone, so I generally didn’t think of myself as offering a gift so much as just generally bitching. Bitching humorously, but bitching nonetheless. Still, there’s a lot of bitching going on in anyone’s life, so it’s easy to empathize. I offered myself not as a confused, flawed role model, just as a guy who has problems like anyone and dreams like anyone. I worried in the book that my story was too normal, too uninteresting to merit attention (there’s a whole chapter on it), but I think that’s what makes people write to me and say, “Hey, man, this exactly what I’m going through right now.” Because most of us just have normal American lives, but even those normal lives are full of drama and conflict and hope and tragedy and hilarity and intrigue and wonder.

Why Coming of Age Memoirs ought to be a genre

by Jerry Waxler

One of the most haunting books I read in high school was James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” His childhood in Dublin was radically different from mine in Philadelphia, so I couldn’t figure out why his story moved me. Now, I look back and realize we both experienced the terrible anxiety of being young. During the period between the ages of say 13 and 23, I struggled to relate to my family and to excel in school. I clumsily attempted to learn the rules of friendships, sexuality, money, and responsibility. And far too often, my best effort led me to a dead end. Finally, I was spit onto the shores of adulthood, gasping for air.

Even on that terra firma, I felt shaky. You mean I have to keep going? When does it get easy?

To learn why life had not turned out according to plan, I spent years in talk therapy and read scores of self-help books. I went to graduate school to learn how to provide psychotherapy to others. But my understanding of that long, unsatisfying transition from child to adult still eluded me. How could i help others if my own transition to adulthood felt confusing? Finally, I found the solution. I can learn about that period of my life by reading memoirs.

Some of the most popular modern memoirs have been about that stage in the author’s development. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr tells about growing up in Texas with two parents who were drowning in their own lives. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls tells of a chaotic childhood, traveling from town to town escaping her father’s demons. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt grew up in Ireland in a family where alcohol and poverty played a key role. And This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff tells of an ordinary boy with a single mom. She tries to take care of him, but to a large extent, he has to take care of himself.

These Coming of Age tales make one thing clear. Parents have flaws. They can’t always be there. They make mistakes that cause their family to suffer. Each of these dramas reminds me of the extreme vulnerability of children and the importance of parental guidance.

These books often show the role of money. For example, Tobias Wolff’s mother married a man she didn’t love in order to provide a home for her son. Jeanette Walls ate margarine sandwiches to stave off hunger. Frank McCourt scavenged bits of coal that had fallen off trucks, and his mother waited at her husband’s factory on payday to try to get his check before he could drink it away.

Alcohol comes up a lot. Sometimes the parents are drunk, and sometimes it’s the kids who have started to explore the anesthetic properties of drinking. Religion is often invoked as a way to keep kids in line, which in turn creates confusion about these belief systems. Other institutions come up as well. Kids spend a lot of time in school, where they must survive tests from teachers as well as from peers. And constantly, parents and society try to counsel the kids on how to behave.

Until the last few years, no one was ever supposed to talk about life inside their home. It wouldn’t be “right.” Coming of Age memoirs have broken through the taboo. Now that we’re comparing notes, we finally can discard once and for all the syrupy-fake television families of the 50s like “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” Reality is much more complicated that they led us to believe.

But memoirs reveal more than secrets. They also reveal wisdom. In our younger years, we lacked the sophisticated thinking that would have let us make sense of what was going on. When we return to take another look, we identify the causes that tied it all together.

For example, in high school I did schoolwork while my peers were out playing in the back alley. Every Friday and Saturday evening I worked at my dad’s drugstore. At the time, anyone else might have immediately understood my pervasive loneliness but to me it was a mystery. Now, as I write my memoir, my adult mind untangles events and it all makes more sense.

James Joyce started the Twentieth Century by writing a semi-autobiographical story about his Coming of Age. At the beginning of the Twenty First Century such stories are becoming a regular feature of our culture. In my high school English class I also read poetry. William Wordsworth said, “The child is father of the man.” I knew it was important but its meaning was just out of reach. Now, thanks to reading and writing memoirs, I grasp the way that child gave birth to the person I am today.

Here are more Coming of Age stories.

— “Name all the animals” by Alison Smith. A Midwestern girl loses her brother, and discovers her sexuality amidst her grief.
— “Sleeping arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham. An orphan in the Bronx was raised by two uncles, in a zany, heartwarming rendition of New York in the 50s.
— “Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein. A young man in Great Britain before and during World War I (yes, that’s a one) lived in a neighborhood split through the center of the street.
— “Colored people” by Henry Louis Gates. A black boy growing up in a tiny town in Jim Crow south finds himself. And he uses the book to try to explain this culture to his children.
— “Don’t call me mother” by Linda Joy Myers. A girl orphaned not by death but by abandonment, struggling to grow up despite her many emotional obstacles.
— “Black, White and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker. This is a book of self-discovery by the daughter of the famous author, Alice Walker.
— “Color of Water” by James McBride. A young black man explores the history of his white Jewish mother and in the process also discovers himself.
— “Tweak” by Nic Sheff. This young man falls into the clutches of crystal meth. Like any hard addiction, this one refocused his entire journey on the goal of getting high. It’s a sobering look at how badly drugs distort Coming of Age.
— “Funny in Farsi” by Firoozeh Dumas. An Iranian-American explores her childhood in America. These adventures of the Melting Pot update the many generations of immigrants who have tried to become part of this amalgamated culture.

Harry Potter was a coming of age story, about the hero’s adventure growing up in an unusual high school.

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Failure to Launch Generates Dramatic Tension

by Jerry Waxler

According to the television shows “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” the process of going from child to adult was supposed to be easy. I expected to go to college, become a doctor, and raise a family. But the reality was far more complex. The turbulence during the Vietnam War shook me off course and sent me on a long journey that covered a lot of territory but never seemed to arrive anywhere.

Emerging into adulthood is sometimes dubbed “launching,” a term that reminds me of a woman in a fur coat smashing a bottle across the bow of a ship being sent to sea on its maiden voyage. My launching did not include getting hit with a bottle of champagne, but I was hit with other substances which contributed to my loss of focus.

During the first fifteen years of my extended search for my place in the adult world, I tried Plans B, C, and D, drifting on open seas, meandering from island to island, with no apparent route and for that matter no apparent destination. To gain control over my navigation, I began a decades-long course of talk therapy. Based on those discussions, my sense of purpose and direction came back into focus.

In my fifties, I realized that by writing a memoir, I could consolidate the knowledge I had gained from these years of experimenting and exploring. From this panoramic view, confusion gave way to wisdom. Dozens of alternate lifetimes later, I am finally regaining the confidence and purpose I felt before I fell off the launch pad. The whole point was to achieve a sense of empowered adulthood, and it appears I have finally achieved that goal.

I’m not sure that a memoir about this long, multi-stage life would be focused enough to sustain a reader’s interest. But since that’s the way my life actually worked, I intend to try. One of the few memoirs that offer a model for this long approach to adulthood is John Robison’s “Look me in the eye.” As a young adult, he pulled together relationships and career but something was missing.  My impression is that his life came into fullness much later when he realized he had Asperger’s, a mental “condition” that was preventing him from interacting with the world.

Robison was not the only one to have a difficult emergence into adulthood. Many memoirs relate the difficulties of this journey, and while each one offers its own unique slant, together they demonstrate that this developmental challenge of life, to go from child to adult, can provide an enormous amount of dramatic tension.

In my next blog essay, I will offer a number of examples of memoirs whose authors struggled on their transition into adulthood.
Writing Prompt
Consider the impact this period had for you. If you have had a curiosity or horror about your own transition from childhood to adulthood, you will find that the power of this period can make compelling material.

To read the essay I wrote about how John Robison’s memoir gave me permission to be myself, click here.