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.

Life’s desires create the chapters of our story

by Jerry Waxler

Every time I finish reading a memoir, I wonder how the author turned life into a story. After years of trying, I believe I have found a simple formula. Each book follows the author from the seed of some desire, through the journey, until they achieve their goal. Now all I need to do is apply that formula to my own memories. For every desire that propelled me, I search for the path it forced me to travel.

When I review my life, I immediately see my desire to become an adult. I remember that journey well because I had to struggle so long and hard to make it. Many aspects of early life eluded me. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to my family, or my peers. I couldn’t figure out sex, or money, or where to live. As soon as I was able, I moved 1,000 miles, from the east coast to the Midwest, and when that wasn’t far enough, I moved to the other coast, 3,000 miles from Philadelphia.

We all face this fundamental need to grow up, so it’s not surprising that some of the most popular memoirs of our era have been about the complex, sometimes disturbing process of Coming of Age. For example, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle,” and Mary Karr’s “Liar’s Club,” all guide us through that period in the author’s life.

When we finally reached adulthood, we embark on the long middle, when career and family carry us along for decades. My long career journey, from foundry worker to technical writer and programmer, then on to graduate school for counseling psychology took up most of my life, a journey so long and complex I can only make sense of it by looking back. Amidst those years, I traveled a number of other important paths, each driven by some need for love, survival, success. The desires were different, but the cycle was the same: I wanted. I tried. I overcame obstacles. This cycle, repeated dozens of times, provided the raw material for stories through the middle of life.

Then aching knees and sagging skin announced the passing years. At first I clung to youth, creating the stereotypical mid-life crisis. Time moved further and soon, I faced a new challenge. At 62 years old, I must invent myself again, adapting to a new stage of body-mind development. I dub this period my Second Coming of Age.

To prevent some of my earlier errors, and hopefully smooth my path, I scan for stories through the years, bringing me to today. What desires are creating the next chapter of my life, right now? I make a list. More than ever, I want to “give back” to society. I also thirst for spirituality. And my passion for creativity, rather than fading, continues to intensify.

It turns out that writing my memoir satisfies most of these desires. Writing gives me a daily dose of creativity and skill-building. It helps me become more psychologically tuned to my self and my world. And it gives me opportunities to connect with writers and readers in a meaningful way. It even brings spiritual rewards. As I continue to discover the protagonist of my memoir, I look for deeper principles that will help me make sense of the entire book of my life.

Writing prompt

List the things you desired or needed during your first Coming of Age. Pick one desire and list the obstacles that stopped you from achieving that thing. Now write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming that obstacle.

Writing Prompt
List desires that are motivating you now. (For example, learning your heritage, connecting with readers, improving your credentials, satisfying a creative urge, serving a cause.) Pick one, and list the obstacles. Write a scene that shows you facing and overcoming one of these obstacles.

Link: See my article on Maslow’s Hierarchy for another discussion of the needs of human beings.

The universal stages of life were explored in the Twentieth Century by psychologist Erik Erikson in his stages of Psychosocial development.

His stages of psychosocial development continue to inspire psychology students to slap their head and saying “Of course!”


William Shakespeare said it superbly in an often quoted line from “As You Like It”

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ brow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” – As You Like it, Jaques (Act II, Scene VII, lines 139-166)

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.