By Jerry Waxler
Doreen Orion and her husband are psychiatrists, which means they had to complete medical school before they could start studying mental illness. This intense education elevates physicians to the stratosphere, provoking enough curiosity in the rest of us to inspire television shows like ER, Scrubs, Marcus Welby, MASH, and Gray’s Anatomy. Now you can add one more resource to learn who doctors “really are” by reading Doreen Orion’s memoir, “Queen of the Road.”
You will learn a couple of things about doctors. But like everyone else her identity is a moving target. Whether you are a psychiatrist, a CEO, beauty queen, sales person, or factory worker, your title changes depending on whether you’re home, at your parents’ house, or at work. It changes from decade to decade, and it changes when you retire.
I know a couple who moved to a retirement community in Florida where former factory workers and college professors set aside their old titles and in this egalitarian environment they all become good friends. (Some are better at dropping their former role than others.) Doreen and her husband are not yet fully retired, but their year off provides a glimpse of what happens when they shuck the outer skin of their identity.
When sketching your life story, take advantage of Orion’s example. Pay attention to what your various roles feel like. With your kids you were mom or dad, in your parents’ house you were the kid, and at work the boss or worker. Look across decades, and see how your roles evolved. By staying open to the various ways people see you and you see yourself, you will portray your identity not as a static thing, but a thing in motion.
Who are you in your main role? What other roles do you have? Write a few anecdotes, calling attention to your roles.
Character Arc – What you have learned, keeps readers interested
It turns out that one of the fundamental principles of story telling is that during the course of the story, the protagonist is supposed to learn something and change in some way. This story element is called Character Arc, and if done well continues to resonate in the reader’s mind after they close the book. If you want people to remember your memoir long enough to recommend it to friends, I recommend you carefully consider the Character Arc.
“Queen of the Road” starts with concern about midlife crisis, and so, once this dramatic tension has been planted in the reader’s mind, it needs to be resolved by the end. That’s a problem because it’s impossible to “solve” midlife. In fact, by the end of the book, the couple was a year older. The resolution of this dramatic tension comes from Character Arc. If she learns and grows, the reader feels satisfied. So what did Orion learn?
Travel and “Stuff”
One of the haunting images of the pioneers of the old west is the sad scene when the wagon train reaches the mountains. With winter approaching and the horses straining to carry their load, the pioneers make a terrible decision. They push the most valuable thing they own, their piano, off the back of the wagon. Freed of this burden they cross the mountain before winter and save their lives.
Unlike the settlers of the American West, Orion stored her stuff during her pilgrimage, but she was inconvenienced in other ways. For example, after purchasing a pair of shoes she came back to the RV and realized there was no where to put them. So she had to drive all the way back to the store and return them.
Religions have been proposing for millennia that since you can’t take it with you, don’t get too attached to your stuff. It doesn’t seem probable that a bus equipped with dishwasher and satellite television will teach Orion a profound lesson about detachment. But it does.
Orion realized her stuff was not as important as she thought. This inner development might seem small. But despite its modest size, she leaves me feeling rewarded. She was wiser at the end of the book than she was at the beginning – Not a bad pay off for a trip, and not a bad payoff for reading a book. It stayed with me long enough to recommend it to you.
The movement of Doreen’s Character Arc is a journey in its own right, showing her character move through the course of a memoir. We thought we knew her, and now we see we were wrong. This is the kind of simple message that builds hope in readers, as well as memoir writers. At the start of our own journey, we thought we knew who we were, and over time we evolve to become wiser about ourselves and the world.
List the times “stuff” has been important to you. Each time you moved? What about divorce? Splitting up stuff is a huge part of that sad time. Did you have to deal with your parents’ stuff when they died or had to go into assisted living? Did you lose or break something that was important to you?
How will your character evolve from the beginning of the book to the end?
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