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)

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.

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

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

One way to resolve the “where do I start” dilemma is to jump straight into the action, and then come back later to fill it in with flashbacks. Flashbacks consist of entire scenes, inserted out of chronological order. Even though life takes place in chronological order, flashbacks give you the freedom to jump straight into the thick of the action. In addition, they offer another stylistic benefit. They can increase the power of an otherwise boring scene.

Travel Memoirs and Flashbacks

In his memoir, Zen and Now, Mark Richardson retraces the path traveled by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The miles of road streaming by provide Richardson perfect empty canvas on which to paint scenes not only from Pirsig’s book but also from other times in his own life. The weaving of time, thoughts, and place feels seamless, and the pages roll by with the same grace as the miles.

I’ve since read other travel memoirs that use this technique. Andrew X. Pham has plenty to say about other times in his life during his bicycle ride through Vietnam in Catfish and Mandala and Cheryl Strayed takes advantage of both of these benefits in her artful use of flashback in Wild.  She sweats and struggles with her backpack on a wilderness trail, and effortlessly integrates her remembered scenes to provide an ever deepening spiral of character development. Thanks to her impeccable stylistic control, and the neat trick of inserting the past scenes when nothing much is happening around her, Strayed uses flashbacks to her advantage.

However, even though the open road provides a blank canvas on which to paint flashbacks, not all travel writers use it in that way. Throughout Sam Manicom’s year-long motorcycle ride in his memoir Into Africa, he only briefly mentions that he grew up on that continent and provides no scenes from the earlier period, and Doreen Orion does not say much at all about her past during the road trip on her RV in Queen of the Road.

Flashbacks Require More Craft

Many memoirs follow chronological order because that’s the way life really happens. However, when you first start writing, your memory asserts its own order, or rather lack of it. During the research stage, memories jump around like lightening from one period to another, touching on a variety of scenes only tenuously connected to each other. When you first wrote this hodgepodge it might have made perfect sense. But readers won’t be able to reconstruct your life in the order that it actually unfolded.

Story reading is very different than memory, and so, a big part of the memoir writer’s job is to sort the raw material of memory back into the chronology of actual events. Gradually you will tease apart the causes and sequences of things, and present them in the most compelling possible manner. Good writers work hard so their readers can work easy.

However, as you develop your story, and continue to look for the techniques that will keep readers fascinated, you may decide the final version will benefit from a flashback, and that requires work to make sure the reader is oriented in time and space. You never want the reader to ask, “where am I again?” Such ambiguity disrupts their precious attention.

So how do you gracefully insert a flashback without disrupting the reader’s concentration and ensuring they know exactly where they are in time? If you on a hike through the wilderness, it could be easy for the reader to realize your childhood bedroom scene is a flashback. But what if your flashback scene is in the same place and with the same person? The two scenes could bleed into each other, leading the reader into ambiguity and confusion.

The movie Wayne’s World provided a comedic exhibit of how to make a clear transition. The characters signaled the return to an earlier time by making a silly noise, wiggling their fingers and shimmying the video. That exaggerated device highlights the importance of letting everyone know the timeframe is shifting.

For example a time shift in books often occur at a chapter break, or is signified with extra line breaks and printer’s marks. The first phrase of the first sentence should make obvious reference to the shift in order to acclimate the reader. For example the weather in one time frame is cold and in the other it is warm, or it could be a clear verbal signal. “Back in the earlier time, life was good.” You could even mention the date. Doing it right is crucial and it requires polish and skill to pull it off effectively.

Sometimes a jump in time can be signaled with a prop. So if you are touching a briefcase at the airport, waiting in line, and then you remember a previous scene. You jump back into that scene. Then, when you are ready to return, you feel the weight of the briefcase in your hand and hear the person at the counter asking if they can help you. One of the great ah-ha moments in cinema comes when Christopher Reeves’ character in Somewhere In Time travelled back in history to meet a lover. When he glances at a coin with a future date, the shock hurtles him out of the past and back into the future.

Perhaps You Didn’t Need to Go Back

If you don’t believe your earlier years would add anything to the story, don’t force yourself to include them. It may be that your story starts much later . Lots of excellent memoirs offer very little backstory. For example, in many memoirs about the period called launching, when the author is attempting to move out into the world, there is very little consideration of earlier years. Every ounce of their energy seems to be focused on the future.

  • Publish This Book by Stephen Markeley: A young man, just out of college tries to figure out how to earn a living as a writer.
  • Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook: A young newlywed moves with her husband to his job in Japan and must figure out life marriage and career.
  • Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn: A young woman enters the workforce and ends up interviewing celebrities. In her new role, she still must figure out how to be herself.

In every memoir, the structure is determined by the author’s best attempt to provide a powerful story and each author uses different devices. In Dani Shapiro’s launching memoir, Slow Motion, she does provide many important flashbacks of her earlier life. At the other extreme, backstory can be extremely brief. In Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald she mentions that she travelled to India because a stalker scared her away from her home in Australia.

Do Midlife Psychological Dramas Need Roots?

Many memoirs focus on challenges later in life, when events or psychological pressures cause us to rethink our direction. For example, in Accidental Lessons, David Berner tells about his midlife crisis, during which he drops out of his successful career and marriage and attempts to reinvent himself. He writes the whole story from the point of view of a middle-aged guy in a junior position as a school teacher, and offers hardly any glimpses of his earlier life. I found the book engaging, and psychologically compelling. In her midlife course correction  Sonia Marsh tackles the world head-on, and tells about her move to Belize in her memoir Freeways to Flipflops. The journey is told with very few flashbacks.

Other writers who experience a shift in awareness later in life choose to start their story from many years earlier. For example, when John Robison realizes in midlife that has had Asperger’s syndrome, it helped him understand himself. In his memoir Look Me In the Eye, he starts from childhood and describes his whole life in chronological order. When Boyd Lemon retires, he wants to make sense of the mess he made of his three marriages. He organizes his memoir Digging Deep as a series of three long flashbacks, remembered from the present.

Writing Prompt
The decision about how you structure your story will be influenced by your creative approach to the dramatic arcs of your life. Explore the possibilities by writing one or more synopses, as if you are writing a blurb for the back of your book, using third-person so it feels like you are talking about someone else. Experiment with a variety of approaches. For example, write a blurb about a memoir of your childhood. Write one about the journey of launching into adulthood. Or write about some other powerful event or period that you feel might be story worthy.

As you proceed in your memoir writing journey, hone these blurbs. A side effect of refining them will be an improved understanding of your whole project and will help you find your way amid the complexity of memories.


This is the third part of the series about how to structure a memoir.
How Should I Begin My Memoir?
One of the most puzzling questions about how to structure a memoir is “Where do I begin?”

How Much Childhood Should I Include in My Memoir?
Since memoirs are a psychologically oriented genre, we want to include enough background to show how it all began. But how much is the right amount?

Should You Use Flashbacks in Your Memoir?
Flashbacks provide important background information, but you need to use them carefully so you don’t confuse your reader.

More Tips about Constructing the Timeline of a Memoir
The timeline of a memoir contains the forward momentum, and the laying out of cause and effect, so it’s important to learn the best techniques for laying it out.

Beware of Casual Flashforwards in Your Memoir
In real life, we can’t know the future, so to keep your memoir authentic, try to avoid sounding like a prophet.

How a Wrapper Story Helps You Structure Your Memoir
When you try to tell your own unique story, you might find that you need an additional layer of narration to make it work. Here are a few examples of writers who used wrapper stories.

Telling a Memoir’s Backstory by Seesawing in Time
If you want to tell about the childhood roots of your adult dilemmas, you could follow the example of these authors who wove the two timeframes together.

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.